Can eating chocolate prevent heart (and brain) disease?

Move over apples, 'cos the word is out: a small piece of dark chocolate a day may well keep the doctor away.

Cardiovascular disease account for 29% of all deaths world wide and remains the leading cause of death.

A study recently published in the British Medical Journal has examined the cost effectiveness and efficiency of eating dark chocolate to prevent heart disease, non-fatal stroke or heart attack.

The study used data from over 2000 participants in the Australian Diabetes Obesity and Lifestyle study who had a condition known as metabolic syndrome. This syndrome puts people at increased risk of heart disease.

Metabolic syndrome is increasing in prevalence as our population struggles with increasing levels of obesity, diabetes and an ageing population.

Lifestyle interventions are recognised as having an important influence in helping to reduce risk factors. Cocoa beans are recognised as being very high in polyphenol antioxidants called flavonoids. The flavonoids are anti- inflammatory, anti hypertensive and anti- thrombotic. In other words they reduce inflammation in the body (often associated with heart and brain disease), lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of blood clots.

Previous studies investigating the benefits of dark chocolate have been relatively short, up to 18 weeks. This is the first time that statistical modelling has been used to determine whether dark chocolate consumption in a high risk group might be useful as a preventive strategy.

The results?

Assuming 100% compliance for eating dark chocolate each day (equivalent polyphenol content of 100g ) , which for many people would not be a particular hardship, the model suggests that cardiovascular events could be reduced by 85 per 10,000 population over a 10 year period. While this might not appear that many overall, consider the annual cost of using dark chocolate as a prevention strategy would be approximately Au $40. This is a very minor cost compared to the cost of diabetic and anti-hypertensive and cardiac medications.

The study suggests this strategy would be cost effective, based on the arbitary cost of $50,000 per years of lives saved.

So where does that leave the rest of us who don't have metabolic syndrome?

Well, there is no data to support it, but it would seem likely that consuming a small portion of dark chocolate on a regular basis would be potentially good for our health and our brains.

As someone who enjoys a bit of dark chocolate, I am very happy to continue with my indulgence.

Ref: BMJ 2012;344:e3657 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e3657