March 26th, 2012
04:01 PM ET
It's every woman's dream: could chocolate, the substance that cures everything from PMS to heartbreak, also make you skinnier?
If true, there's got to be a catch, right?
Here's the skinny: Dr. Beatrice Golomb, associate professor of medicine at University of California, San Diego, has published a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine linking regular chocolate consumption with a lower body mass index, or BMI.
Golomb and her team surveyed 1,018 men and women aged 20 to 85 years old about their weekly food intake. Those who reported that they ate chocolate more frequently had lower BMIs. Even more surprisingly, the lower BMI group did not report eating fewer calories or exercising more than their heavier counterparts in the study.
"That does not mean that you can eat unbounded amounts of chocolate," Golomb says.
Ah, the catch.
The research is certainly intriguing. Golomb had hypothesized that the metabolic benefits of chocolate - properties that would slightly increase your metabolism - would offset the calories consumed. "I wasn’t bold enough to conjecture that the net effect would be favorable." But that's what the results showed.
Research has long revealed the heart-healthy benefits of eating small amounts of chocolate, says registered dietician Nancy Copperman, director of Public Health Initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York. Dark chocolate in particular is high in anti-oxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties.
A 2006 meta-analysis of studies published between 1966 and 2005 showed cocoa may even lower blood pressure, increase HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL (bad cholesterol). More recently in 2011, researchers at the University of Cambridge analyzed the results of seven studies and concluded that high levels of chocolate consumption might be associated with a notable reduction in the risk of developing heart disease.
Still, those cardiovascular benefits come with a risk, Copperman says. "Before you start eating a chocolate bar a day to keep the doctor away, remember that a chocolate bar can contain over 200 calories, which mostly come from saturated fats and sugar."
Dr. Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, has concerns about the way the study's researchers gathered their data. For instance, all of the participants in the study self-reported their meals.
"When I looked at this study, my first question was, 'Did they exclude people who were not accurately reporting their diet?'" Roberts wrote in an e-mail. "It is well known that people who are overweight or obese under-report their food intake, and what they under-report is the bad stuff."
In other words, the higher BMI group could have under-reported their chocolate intake. Or the lower BMI group could have over-estimated the total number of calories they were eating.
Roberts acknowledges the possible health benefits of chocolate - it contains caffeine, which may increase your metabolic rate.
"But having healthy constituents does not necessarily make the food good for weight control!" she wrote. "An example here would be cheese – it contains tons of calcium, but is not recommended as a panacea for obesity."
What's needed, all three women agree, are more studies to determine if chocolate's metabolic benefits really can offset the calories consumed, and help people keep their weight in check. Golomb would next like to do a randomized trial, which would include a control group and an experimental group. In such a trial, both groups would eat similar meal plans but only one would add chocolate to their diet.
Is there a way to ensure we're in the chocolate group? Because if so... sign us up.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.