It’s no secret that dark chocolate offers significant benefits for health. This has already been the subject of considerable research, with potential benefits including stress relief (1,2,3), blood sugar control (4,5), lower diabetes risk (6) and improved brain function (7,8,9).
With all these health benefits of dark chocolate, it’s no wonder that so many people consume it regularly.
But, recent research has suggested another area of potential benefit. This relates to the issue of atrial fibrillation – reinforcing the importance of dark chocolate for heart health.
So, in this current post, we’re considering the current evidence that links chocolate and atrial fibrillation, along with the implications for heart health overall.
Chocolate and Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is a form rapid and irregular heartbeat, and is one of the most common forms of irregular heartbeat (10). The process often starts as short periods where beating is irregular and these can become more consistent over time. The site Mayo Clinic discusses the problem more, including some symptoms to watch out for.
Typically, the issue presents in people over 50 years of age with prevalence increasing with age. Atrial fibrillation is also more common in males than in females, at a roughly 1.2:1 ratio (11).
But, like many similar conditions, it can still occur in younger people.
The health issue is particularly important, as it significantly increases the risk of other conditions, including strokes, heart failure, dementia and death from any cause.
Indeed, some research suggests atrial fibrillation causes a five-fold increase in the risk of a stroke and two-fold increase in the risk of death (12).
As a consequence, we need to find ways decrease the risk of atrial fibrillation - like chocolate.
A recent research study looked into evidence for this outcome, using data from the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study. The authors made use of data from 55,502 participants, aged 50 to 64 years of age.
Across more than 13 years, there were 3,346 individual cases of atrial fibrillation. When the authors looked at the cases compared to chocolate consumption, they found this pattern.
Data from Mostofsky et al., 2017
Here, the authors are using a measure called risk ratio. It indicates the likelihood of a given condition – atrial fibrillation in this case. For this study, less than 1 serving of chocolate per month is used as a baseline. So, any number lower than this represents decreased risk of atrial fibrillation.
As the graph shows, there was a dose-specific response, with the best results being seen at 2 to 6 servings of chocolate per week. But, even just 1 to 3 servings per month had a strong impact on the risk ratio.
This outcome is promising for any chocolate lover, with multiple media outlets talking about how chocolate can help your health. And, without a doubt, the research is encouraging.
But, there are some things to consider. First, this is just an observational study, so the effects aren’t proven.
If you're curious, the site Simply Psychology is a good place to learn more about observational research and the implications of the technique.
Second, it isn’t clear what type of chocolate people were consuming. In fact, people probably varied in their chocolate choices. Nevertheless, the study was conducted in Denmark and European chocolate typically has a higher cocoa concentration than American chocolate. It also tends to have more fat and less sugar (13,14).
Still, even with those limitations, the study does show that eating chocolate regularly may be much better for you than most of us assume.
Eating Dark Chocolate for Your Heart
The idea that chocolate can improve heart health often seems strange. After all, chocolate is fairly high in calories and often contributes to obesity (which certainly doesn’t help your heart).
But, there are also beneficial compounds in chocolate and these do have many implications for health.
The compounds in question are plant-based nutrients called flavanols (15,16) and their prevalence is higher in the darker types of chocolate. This is why most recommendations suggest that you should be eating chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa, ideally higher.
Indeed, the best dark chocolate options are the ones that are high in cocoa content and low in sugar.
Now, the study we’re talking about didn’t provide any information about the chocolate type.
But, dark chocolate is likely to have a strong impact on atrial fibrillation, simply because of the healthy compounds present.
Furthermore, there is other evidence that dark chocolate can help to improve heart health. For example, some studies show that dark chocolate can lower LDL levels (17), improve cardiovascular health (18), lower blood pressure (19) and reduce inflammation (20,21).
There is also some research supporting the role of milk chocolate in reducing heart disease risk (22). But, there is considerably more evidence for dark chocolate than for milk chocolate.
Finally, the connection between dark chocolate and stress could also have implications for your heart. Many people struggle with chronic stress. This issue often affects behaviors and frequently contributes to unhealthy decisions, many of which can increase the risk of heart disease and other heart issues. Likewise, there are theories suggesting that stress could directly increase risk (23). This is something the site MedicineNet discusses in detail.
As a result, finding ways to manage and lower stress is critical for your overall health and for ensuring your heart remains healthy. Dark chocolate is one way of doing just that.
All of these factors strongly suggest that dark chocolate can improve health. When you combine this with the study on atrial fibrillation, it’s increasingly clear that dark chocolate can be powerful for promoting health – as long as you don’t go overboard with how much you eat.
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