As if we all needed another reason to love chocolate: A recent study finds an association between consuming chocolate and having a significantly lower risk of being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib), a common heart condition that involves an irregular heartbeat. But — sorry, chocaholics — it’s yet to be proven that eating the sweet stuff will actually help you avoid AFib.
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The findings were based on data collected and analyzed from a large study of men and women in Denmark. Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and others looked at the health data of 55,502 men and women participating in the Danish Diet, Cancer and Heath Study.
The researchers obtained information on the study participants’ body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol, which were measured when participants were recruited between 1993 and 1997. They also looked at participants’ health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease as well as data on their diet and lifestyle gathered from questionnaires. The researchers looked at information about the participants’ daily chocolate intake.
They found that those who ate moderate amounts — two to six servings per week — showed the lowest risk for AFib.
Previous studies suggest that cocoa and cocoa-containing foods — in particular, dark chocolate, which has a higher cocoa content than milk chocolate — confer cardiovascular benefits, perhaps because of their high content of flavanols, which may promote healthy blood vessel function.
AFib affects 2.7 million to 6.1 million Americans and is linked with higher risk of stroke, heart failure, cognitive decline, dementia, and death.
Simply a link
So is it time to run out and stock up on chocolate to be heart-healthy? Not so fast, says cardiologist Daniel Cantillon, MD. Dr. Cantillon did not take part in the study.
What remains unknown after the research is whether the results were due to a biologic effect of chocolate. It could be that there is some other unknown variable, such as lifestyle habits or genetics, that was common to the group of people who ate more chocolate, he says.
Also, the participants ate chocolate that likely had relatively low concentrations of potentially protective ingredients, he says. The amount of chocolate that the participants consumed each day was less than than a regular-size candy bar.
Even though chocolate is delicious and is all right to eat once in awhile, it’s important to remember that it does have a lot of sugar and fat, Dr. Cantillon says. So enjoying just a few servings per week is best.
“I think we really have to caution our patients against consuming excessive amounts of sugar treats, especially those who are obese or have diabetes, because we know that these kinds of foods can be directly harmful,” Dr. Cantillon says.
AFib oftentimes is an inherited condition, and there are no proven prevention measures you can take against it. But if you really want to lower your overall risk of developing AFib, there are more effective strategies than eating chocolate, Dr. Cantillon says.
One is to maintain a healthy weight. And for those who have been already diagnosed with AFib, getting to a healthy weight can decrease the symptoms.
“For people who have AFib and are also obese, there is good scientific evidence that losing weight and getting to a more healthy body mass index can be effective in reducing the amount of atrial fibrillation that our patients are experiencing.”