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People diagnosed with "metabolic syndrome" will likely be advised to lose weight. To many that means no more sweets, especially chocolate. But Australian researchers think a daily dose of dark chocolate may be just what the doctor should order. It might well reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in these high risk patients.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors that increase the probability that someone will develop heart disease or diabetes. It is sometimes referred to as Syndrome X. Generally it includes high blood pressure, excess weight around the middle or central obesity (usually described as an apple-shaped body), and insulin resistance or the inability of the body to use insulin effectively.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal, Australian researchers concluded that daily consumption of dark chocolate can reduce cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, in people with metabolic syndrome.
The researchers used a mathematical model of 2,013 people at high risk of heart disease to predict the long-term health effects of daily dark chocolate consumption compared to not eating any dark chocolate. The participants all had high blood pressure and the signs of metabolic syndrome, but had no history of heart disease or diabetes.
According to the analysis, if all of the study participants ate some dark chocolate every day (what a hardship!), 70 non-fatal and 15 fatal cardiovascular events per 10,000 people would be averted over 10 years.
Even if only 80% took their chocolate "pill," researchers believed the therapy would still be effective with 55 non-fatal and 10 fatal cardiovascular events potentially averted over 10 years.
The researchers also examined the cost effectiveness of chocolate as therapy. The model suggested that it would cost approximately $42 per person per year for advertising, educational campaigns, or subsidizing dark chocolate in this high risk population.
It's widely believed that eating chocolate has health benefits due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This includes reducing blood pressure and improving insulin sensitivity (a stage in the development of diabetes). Dark chocolate (containing at least 60% cocoa solids) is also rich in flavonoids, which are known to have heart protecting effects. That's one reason why chocolate has been said to give the billion dollar statin industry a run for its money.
The researchers emphasized that these protective effects have only been shown for dark chocolate (at least 60-70% cocoa), rather than for milk or white chocolate, probably due to the higher levels of flavonoids found in dark chocolate. They also suggested that milk proteins in lighter chocolate may inhibit the absorption of flavonoids.
They noted that other studies have shown that dark chocolate or cocoa polyphenols decrease low density lipoproteins, increase high density lipoproteins, increase insulin sensitivity, improve endothelial function, have anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombic effects, reduce stress, increase satiety, and improve mood.
The study authors concluded that given its blood pressure and cholesterol lowering effects, dark chocolate could be an effective strategy for people with metabolic syndrome who haven't developed diabetes. And as they point out, compared to drug therapies, chocolate has few if any adverse side effects and higher rates of compliance among users.
Quality counts when it comes to chocolate. Look for chocolate that is organic, fair-trade, and as dark as possible with at least 70% cacao content.