"Eat a bar of chocolate and call me in the morning." That's not exactly what patients expect to hear from their doctors, but in the future, chocolate may be prescribed to help prevent heart disease and diabetes in patients with metabolic syndrome.
Numerous studies have indicated that dark chocolate (chocolate that's at least 60 percent cocoa) is rich in heart-healthy flavonoids, but most of the studies were short-term. To see if chocolate could help prevent heart problems long-term, Australian researchers used a mathematical model to predict the health effects and cost effectiveness of eating dark chocolate daily in more than 2,000 people who were already at high risk of heart disease.
All of the participants in the study had high blood pressure and also met the criteria for metabolic syndrome, a combination of medical problems that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes including obesity, high triglycerides, and reduced HDL cholesterol. None of the participants, however, had a history of heart disease or diabetes and none were on blood pressure medications.SPECIAL: These 4 Things Happen Right Before a Heart Attack — Read More.
The model showed that when all participants ate dark chocolate daily for 10 years, researchers found 70 fewer non-fatal cardiovascular events and 15 fewer fatal cardiovascular events per 10,000 people. When compliance levels dropped to 80 percent, the number of events potentially averted was 55 and 10 respectively per 10,000 people treated for over 10 years — still an effective therapy both in terms of health benefits and cost, said the researchers.
Previous short-term studies found that eating chocolate produced impressive improvements in cardiovascular health. One study found that heart attack survivors who ate chocolate two or more times a week slashed their risk of dying from heart disease by threefold. German researchers found that eating only one square of dark chocolate a week lowered the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39 percent, and another study found that people who ate the equivalent of a small chocolate bar each week reduced their risk of dying following a stroke by 46 percent.
And one long-term, 10-year Australian study found that women over the age of 70 who ate chocolate at least once a week were 60 percent less likely to die from heart failure during the study.
Chocolate has also been shown to reduce the risk of stroke. A 2011 Swedish study of 33,000 women found that the more chocolate the women ate, the lower their risk of stroke. The findings, which appeared in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that women who ate more than 45 grams of chocolate a week (about 1.5 ounces) suffered 2.5 strokes per 1,000 women each year. On the other hand, those who ate the least chocolate (less than 8.9 grams a week or less than one-third of a ounce) had 7.8 strokes per 1,000 women.
Chocolate has also been shown to lower blood pressure. A 2012 meta-analysis examined the results of 42 clinical trials and found that blood pressure readings of chocolate lovers were slightly lower than those who didn't eat chocolate. The study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also found an improvement in how well blood vessels respond to increased blood flow.
According to other studies, chocolate can affect many other areas of your health including:
• Weight. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who ate chocolate regularly weighed less than those who shunned the sweet treat. Study participants ate chocolate an average of twice each week and had a body mass index (BMI) of 28 — overweight but not obese. The researchers found that even though the people who ate chocolate more frequently ate more overall calories, including saturated fats, they had lower body weights (five to seven pounds less) than those who ate no chocolate or ate it less frequently.
• Muscle strength. Research published in the journal Clinical and Translational Science found that dark chocolate boosts the mitochondria — or the fuel cells of the body — making muscles stronger and increasing endurance. In the study, patients with heart disease and diabetes ate dark chocolate bars and drank a daily beverage enriched with a flavonoid found in chocolate. After three months, their "fuel cells" showed significant improvement.
• Stress. A clinical trial published in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Proteome Research found that eating about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate every day for two weeks reduced stress hormones in people who were feeling highly stressed.
• Diabetes. Research at the U.K.'s Hull York Medical School found that chocolate improved the function of blood vessels in patients with Type 2 diabetes, and an Italian study found that eating chocolate weekly increased insulin sensitivity, thus lowering the risk of developing the disease.
• Brain health. A 2009 study found that people were able to count backwards better after drinking hot cocoa. The researchers attributed the results to flavonoids which they believe increase blood flow to the brain and may delay age-related decline.
• Eyesight. A 2011 study at the University of Reading suggested that the ability to improve blood flow in the brain may also increase blood to the eye's retina, thus giving vision a boost. Researchers found that eating chocolate improved performance by 17 percent, and the effects appeared to last for hours.
• Wrinkles. Scientists at European Dermatology London say a few squares daily of very dark chocolate containing high amounts of flavonoids (antioxidants found in some foods), help prevent wrinkles caused by UV rays from the sun, and may even lower the risk of skin cancer.
• Mood. Cocoa triggers the production of serotonin and dopamine — the "feel good" hormones — and also contains a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA) that the brain produces in large amounts when we fall in love. The darker the chocolate, the more love-stimulating chemicals it contains.SPECIAL: These 5 Things Flush 40 lbs. of Fat Our of Your Body — Read More.