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Can eating chocolate really lower body fat?

THE QUESTION

Is it true that eating chocolate can lower body fat?

THE ANSWER

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It seems counterintuitive that a food associated with calories, fat and sugar could keep body fat in check. Yet earlier this month, researchers from Spain concluded that our favourite confectionery is tied to lower body fat levels – at least among teenagers.

The study was conducted among 1,458 12- to 17-year-olds living in nine European countries. It found that teens who reported eating those most chocolate – 42.5 grams or 240 calories worth each day (equivalent to a standard, not super-sized, chocolate bar ) – had lower levels of total body fat and abdominal fat and smaller waist sizes than kids who ate much less (five grams, or 30 calories worth).

The link persisted even when the researchers controlled for participants' intake of calories, saturated fat, fruits and vegetables as well as physical activity. Last year, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine chocolate eating was also connected to leanness among adults.

Chocolate is a source flavonoids, natural compounds thought to influence body fat by blocking the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that promotes fat storage. Flavonoids may also make it easier for the body to used stored fat for energy by improving insulin sensitivity.

Chocolate may have some health benefits, but it's doubtful it can help you lose body fat. These new findings didn't prove eating chocolate was responsible for slimmer teens. They are simply an interesting correlation obtained by collecting data on body composition, physical activity and diet – self-reported by teens for only two days – at a given point in time.

What's more, self-reported dietary habits are prone to error. It's possible, for example, that overweight kids underreport their food intake. The study did not ask about the type of chocolate eaten so it's unknown whether body composition differed between milk chocolate and dark chocolate eaters (dark chocolate contains more catechins).

Even so, it's an interesting concept that when it comes to weight control, there's more to food than calories. A food's biologically active compounds, such as flavonoids, may also factor into the equation.

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Chocolate won't help you get lean, but it might be good for your heart. Numerous studies have linked chocolate and flavonoids with cardiovascular benefits including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced blood clot risk, improved blood-vessel function, and helping cells use glucose more effectively.

A 2011 review of seven studies conducted in more than 100,000 participants concluded that, while more studies were needed, chocolate consumption was associated with substantial protection from heart disease and stroke.

But not all types of chocolate are created equal. All (except white chocolate) are derived from cocoa solids, a rich source of flavonoids. The more that chocolate is processed, the more cocoa solids and flavonoids are lost. Darker chocolate is less processed and has a higher concentration of flavonoids than milk chocolate. White chocolate (made from sugar, milk and cocoa butter) doesn't contain any flavonoids.

Choose dark chocolate with at least 70-per-cent cocoa solids stated on the label. But doing so doesn't give you a free pass to eat a large 100-gram bar; if you do, you'll consume 530 calories and nearly seven teaspoons of sugar.

Keep your portion size small and make room for other flavonoid-rich foods such as berries, red grapes, apples, onions and green and black tea.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct (www.lesliebeck.com).

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