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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In a new study, people who ate chocolate a few times per week or more weighed less than those who rarely indulged in the sweet.
The finding doesn't prove that adding a candy bar to your daily diet will help you shed pounds.
But researchers said it's possible that antioxidants in chocolate could be behind health benefits including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as decreased body weight.
"People have just assumed that because it comes with calories and it's typically eaten as a sweet, therefore it would inherently have been, one way, bad," said lead researcher Dr. Beatrice Golomb, from the University of California, San Diego.
To test that theory, she and her colleagues used data from a study on cholesterol-lowering drugs that surveyed 1,000 healthy adults on their typical eating habits -- including how often they ate chocolate.
The participants, who were anywhere from 20 to 85 years old, ate chocolate an average of twice per week and had an average body mass index, or BMI, of 28 -- considered overweight but not obese. (For instance, a five-foot, ten-inch-tall man weighing 195 pounds would have a BMI of about 28).
The researchers found that people who ate chocolate with greater frequency tended to eat more calories overall, including more saturated fat, than those who went light on the candy.
Even so, the chocolate lovers tended to have a lower body weight. That was still the case after researchers accounted for participants' age and gender, as well as how much they exercised.
The effect worked out to a five- to seven-pound difference between people who ate five servings of chocolate per week compared to those who didn't eat any, according to Golomb.
However, it was only how often people ate chocolate -- and not the total amount they ate regularly -- that was linked to their weight, the study team reported Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Golomb and her colleagues noted that past studies have tied chocolate to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and better insulin sensitivity, possibly because of antioxidants or other chemicals in cocoa.
The new report was funded by the National Institutes of Health and none of the researchers noted any conflicts of interest related to chocolate -- other than liking it themselves.
One nutritionist who wasn't involved in the new research said there are a number of possible explanations for the findings that don't necessarily imply a weight-loss benefit for eating extra chocolate.
It's possible that poorer people stick to the basics when they're buying food and don't eat as much chocolate -- and poverty has been tied to higher body weight, said Eric Ding, from the Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Another possibility, he told Reuters Health, is that "people who lost weight reward themselves with chocolate, more than chocolate causing the weight loss."
Ding said past evidence suggests antioxidants in cocoa called flavonoids are behind any benefits tied to chocolate -- especially dark chocolate, which has the most flavonoids.
"People know that eating the sugar and the fat won't cause you to lose weight," he said.
Because the new study is relatively small and couldn't prove cause-and-effect, it's hard to take any lessons away from the findings, according to Ding.
But the key for chocolate lovers seems to be considering calories and knowing that not all chocolate is created equal.
"If you consume chocolate, consume it in place of something else, rather than adding to your net daily calories (and) try to consume dark chocolate," Ding said.
Both researchers agreed that moderation is important as well.
"This certainly does not provide support for eating large amounts of chocolate," Golomb told Reuters Health.
Still, she added, "For those of us that do eat a little bit of chocolate regularly, perhaps any guilt associated with that might be quelled." SOURCE: Archives of Internal Medicine, online March 26, 2012.