March 26, 2012 -- People who are trying to lose weight may not need to bar chocolate from their diets.
A new government-funded study of nearly 1,000 healthy adults shows that people who frequently eat chocolate actually weigh less than those who say they eat it less frequently.
Study researchers say that people who reported eating chocolate five times a week had a body mass index (BMI) about one point less, on average, than people who said they ate chocolate less frequently. For a woman who is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds, one BMI point equals about five pounds.
That’s despite the fact that frequent chocolate eaters also reported eating more total calories and more saturated fat than people who ate chocolate less often.
Researchers say that may mean that the calories in chocolate are being offset by other ingredients that boost metabolism.
“With modest amounts of chocolate, they may have the effect of being free calories or even better than free -- at least, the associations look that way,” says Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
The study is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Does Chocolate Aid Weight Loss? Experts Remain Skeptical
Nutritionists who were not involved in the study aren’t convinced that chocolate reduces body weight.
“I think it’s kind of a stretch,” says Nancy Copperman, RD, CDN, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.
“Does it convince me that I should recommend that people eat chocolate to lose weight? No,” she says.
The study was observational, which means it can’t prove that chocolate causes weight loss.
Instead, other experts say, the study might actually say more about the kind of people who feel free to nibble on chocolate several times a week as opposed to people who don’t indulge.
Eating chocolate may be “a marker for lifestyle and relaxed attitudes toward eating -- healthy attitudes,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. Nestle is not related to the chocolate company, and she wasn’t involved in the study.
Researchers say they looked for other things that might explain the weight differences they saw, but chocolate eaters didn’t appear to exercise more or engage in other kinds of behaviors that might explain why they were slimmer than non-chocolate eaters.
Dark Chocolate Can Be a Dieter’s Friend
Still, as treats go, chocolate has many qualities that make it a good choice for people who are watching their weight, some experts say.
David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn., says dark chocolate is a particularly smart choice for dieters.
He has recently studied the health benefits of chocolate but was not involved in the new study.
“Dark chocolate is bittersweet. Whereas sweet stimulates appetite, bitter actually suppresses it. So there may be some lasting benefit from eating dark chocolate in particular,” Katz says.
It’s high in fat, a quality that slows digestion and may help curb appetite longer.
But, he cautions, the study doesn’t mean that the calories in chocolate don’t count.
“No calories are free calories,” Katz tells WebMD. “I would not want people reading this to think that all [they] need to do to lose weight is eat more chocolate. That would be a huge mistake.”
Chocolate comes in many forms, most of which are high in fat and sugar.
To keep chocolate on the healthy side, keep it dark and your portions small.
“What you want to consume, ideally, is any dark chocolate that’s 60% cocoa or greater,” says Francisco Villarreal, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Villarreal studies the effects of chocolate on metabolism, but he was not involved in the new study.
He found that mice fed tiny amounts of epicatechin, one of the main antioxidants in chocolate, were able to run about twice as far on a treadmill as their counterparts who got just water.
Based on his studies, Villarreal believes chocolate might boost metabolism slightly more than exercise, though it doesn’t take very much -- certainly not as much as most of us would hope for -- to get the effect.
“The chocolate should be about the size of a postage stamp or about the weight of a Hershey’s Kiss. A Hershey’s Kiss is 5 grams. It’s very small, and it’s only 30 calories,” he says.