A member of the British Dietetic Association, Juliette Kellow has worked in the NHS and for the food industry, and is the former editor of magazines Slimming and Top Santé. She's also the former editorial...

New research says it’s good for our hearts, so let’s look at the small print

NEW RESEARCH PUBLISHED today (16 June) in medical journal Heart suggests that eating up to 100g chocolate a day – equivalent to two individual bars – helps to keep our heart healthy. It may be the news we’ve all been dreaming off, but before rushing out to the supermarket to stock up on Dairy Milk, a few words of caution!

What did the study say?

The study looked at chocolate consumption in almost 21,000 men and women in relation to the development of cardiovascular disease over 12 years. The researchers concluded that higher intakes of chocolate were associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Furthermore, these benefits were seen with milk chocolate (the type that’s generally considered to be less healthy than dark chocolate, which is known for being richer in heart-healthy flavonoids), indicating that other factors such as the calcium content may be heart-friendly.

How much chocolate was consumed?

So far, so good! But there are a few issues that need consideration. To start with, while some people in the study ate up to 100g chocolate a day, of those who consumed it, the average daily consumption was just 7g – equivalent to one small square! Indeed, the benefit to heart health was seen from as little as 16g chocolate a day. ‘Most probably consumed around 100g a week rather than 100g a day,’ says Professor Myint from the University of Aberdeen who was involved in the study. ‘The results we see are group effects, so we can’t say eating 100g a day will do good,’ he concludes.

Age is an issue

Furthermore, while the study found that people who ate the most chocolate had a lower weight and blood pressure, and were less likely to have diabetes, they were also younger – and this is a significant point. National statistics show that younger people are already less likely to be overweight, or have high blood pressure or diabetes – all of which are significant risk factors for heart disease. For example, the British Heart Foundation’s Coronary Heart Disease Statistics reveal that the incidence of high blood pressure in 35–44 year olds is 25%. In those aged 55–64 years, this more than doubles to 51%. In other words, it could simply be that age is responsible for helping to protect against heart disease – rather than chocolate intake per se.

Then there’s the risk factor

Added to this, the results could be down to the fact that those people who have a higher risk of heart disease eat less chocolate than those who are healthier to start with. Indeed, says Professor Myint, ‘This is an observational study, therefore we can’t imply the cause and effect relationship.’

Unsurprisingly, the study found that eating more chocolate was linked to higher intakes of calories, fat and carbs! And it is on this point that the true issue lies.

Weight gain is not heart friendly

Heart disease aside, there’s the impact on our waistlines to consider. A 100g serving of milk chocolate comes with 519kcal. Add these to your daily diet without making any other changes and in a year you would gain a huge 54lb – or 4st 6lb. For a woman who’s 5ft 5in and 9st 7lb, with a healthy BMI of 22, these extra calories would result in her weight ballooning in just one year to almost 14st, making her obese, with a BMI of more than 32. And, of course, we know that being overweight or obese is a risk factor not only for heart disease but also for many other conditions including certain cancers and type 2 diabetes.

How to enjoy chocolate healthily

So where does this leave us? First, headlines that suggest we should eat two bars of chocolate a day to reduce our risk of heart disease or stroke are bitter sweet and should be given the wide berth they deserve. However, there’s no reason that you can’t still enjoy a little chocolate occasionally as part of an overall healthy, balanced diet. The key as always is – you guessed it – moderation, so stick to one or two small squares a day or a small bar once a week – and compensate for the extra calories by cutting back somewhere else in your diet or by being more active.