So, you know how you get that 3 p.m. urge to indulge in a little chocolate yumminess, but force yourself to reach for a handful of almonds instead? Well, we might be able to help you drop the I-heart-chocolate guilt for good. According to a study from early this year published in the medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine, people who eat chocolate frequently (and by that we mean an average of two times per week) had lower body mass indexes (aka BMI, the number that determines how much fat you have) than those who eat it less often. Hyper-literal translation: chocolate eaters are thinner — and healthier. “Each additional chocolate-eating occasion was linked to about a fifth of a point lower in BMI—so around five pounds for a 5’ tall person; 7 lbs. for someone who is 5’10’,” says Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the study authors.
What's interesting is that while the study participants (about a thousand men and women) told researchers that they indulged their sweet tooth and exercised somewhat regularly (on average, three times per week), they didn’t eat a whole lot of fruit and veggies, but they still had the lower BMI. Why on earth would chocolate, which is higher in fat, be able get you to store less fat than say, eating broccoli? According to Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D., a Washington D.C.-based dietitian and author of The Life You Want: Get Motivated, Lose Weight, and Be Happy, “As the researchers pointed out, chocolate may improve insulin sensitivity, which, in turn, is related to lower levels of body fat — and it may also decrease blood pressure and LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and possibly reduce heart disease risk, too.”
Jibrin’s only caveat: not all chocolate is created equal. “The study didn't indicate whether people were eating dark chocolate or milk chocolate — but the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa and less sugar, so that's the only kind I'd suggest eating to try and imitate these results,” she says. While there’s no standard definition of dark chocolate, Jibrin says 60 percent cocoa or cacao is her cutoff “because most milk chocolate is only in the 30 to 45 percent range.”
Why is the standard milky stuff no bueno? Because it usually contains more saturated fat and sugar, while its darker counterparts boast a lot more phytonutrients. We’re talking mega-antioxidants such as catechins (also found in tea, wine, and apples), plus the superstar antiagers anthocyanins — the same super healthy compounds found in blueberries (and what gives them their color) that are linked to improved memory and heart health — basically making the splurge a lot more worth it for your waist.
Other warnings signs that your fave chocolate fix might pack on the pounds, not help them disappear: “If you see ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ on the ingredient list, steer clear — this means the chocolate contains trans fat, which is linked to heart disease and cancer,” says Jibrin. “You tend to see this term on the labels of chocolate with fillings; plus, if your bar is mostly caramel, nougat, or another non-chocolate filler, then you’re probably getting lots more sugar and a lot fewer nutrients.”
Sure you can hit up your local sweet shop but if you’re feeling all Martha Stewart-y, you could also whip up some fresh, all natural, nothing-but-healthy chocolate goodness on your own. Jilbrin suggests trying this DIY hot chocolate recipe: Mix a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa with about two teaspoons of sugar (8 g), or melt dark chocolate (heat it up over the stove or pop some in the microwave) and drizzle it over strawberries or bananas. Decadent, delicious, and nutritious? We think we'll have seconds.
Opener Image: Photographed by Jasmine Gregory; Main Image: Courtesy of Vosges