Can Chocolate Help You Lose Weight?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues, Obesity

A Candy a Day Keeps The Weight Away?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

chocolateSometimes you come across news that just seems too good to be true. The recent headlines saying that you can lose weight just by eating chocolate are a perfect example. Your first reaction when you heard that was probably “Sure, when pigs fly!”

But, it’s such an enticing idea – one might even say a deliciously enticing idea. And, in today’s world enticing ideas like this quickly gain a life of their own. Two popular books have been written on the subject. Chocolate diet plans are springing up right and left. A quick scan of the internet even revealed a web site saying that by investing a mere $1,250 in a training course you could become a “Certified Chocolate Weight Loss Coach” earning $50,000/year.

If you like chocolate as much as most people you are probably wondering could it just possibly be true?

Can Eating Chocolate Help You Lose Weight?

The idea that chocolate could help you lose weight does have some support. There are actually three published clinical studies suggesting that chocolate consumption is associated with lower weight (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62: 247-253, 2008; Nutrition Research, 31: 122-130, 2011; Archives of Internal Medicine, 172: 519-521, 2012).

While that sounds pretty impressive, they were all cross-sectional studies. That means they looked at a cross section of the population and compared chocolate intake with BMI (a measure of obesity). Cross sectional studies have a couple of very important limitations:

1)    Cross sectional studies merely measure associations. They don’t prove cause and effect. Was it the chocolate that caused the lower weight, or was it something else that those populations were doing? We don’t really know.

2)    Cross sectional studies don’t tell us why an association occurs. In many ways this is the old chicken and egg conundrum. Which comes first? In this case the question is whether the people in the studies became obese because they ate less chocolate – or did they eat less chocolate because they were obese and were trying to control their calories? Again, we have no way of knowing.

If Pigs Could Only Fly

If Pigs Could FlyChocolate is relatively rich in fat and high in calories. It’s not your typical diet food. On the surface it seems fairly implausible that eating chocolate could actually help you lose weight.

Scientists love to poke holes in implausible hypotheses, so it is no surprise that a recent study (PLOS ONE, 8(8) e70271) has poked some huge holes in the “chocolate causes weight loss” hypothesis.

This study analyzed data from over 12,000 participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Community (ARIC) Study. This was also a cross sectional study, but it was a prospective cross sectional study (That’s just a fancy scientific term which means that the study followed a cross section of the population over time, rather than just asking what that population group looked like at a single time point).

The authors of the study assessed frequency of chocolate intake and weight for each individual in the study at two separate time points 6 years apart. The results were very interesting:

  • When they looked at a cross section of the population at either time point, their results were the same as the previous three studies – namely those who consumed the most chocolate weighed less. So the data are pretty consistent. Overweight people consume less chocolate. But, that still doesn’t tell us why they consume less chocolate.
  • However, when they followed the individuals in the study over 6 years, those who consumed the most chocolate gained the most weight. The chocolate eaters were skinnier than the non-chocolate eaters at the beginning of the study, but they gained more weight as the study progressed. And, the more chocolate they consumed the more weight they gained over the next 6 years. [No surprise here. Calories still count.]
  • When they specifically looked at the population who had developed an obesity related illness between the first and second time point, they found that by the end of the study those participants had:

– Decreased chocolate intake by 37%

– Decreased fat intake by 4.5%

– Increased fruit intake by 20%

– Increased vegetable intake by 17%

  • In short, this study is more consistent with the “obesity causes reduced chocolate intake” model than the “reduced chocolate intake causes obesity” model. Simply put, if you are trying to lose weight, sweets like chocolate are probably among the first things to go.

Of course, even prospective cross sectional studies have their limitations. Double blind, placebo controlled studies are clearly needed to resolve this question. The only published study of this type has reported a slight weight gain associated 25 g/day of dark chocolate, but the study was too small and too short in duration to draw firm conclusions.

In summary, more studies are needed, but the current evidence does not support the “miracle diet food” claims for chocolate.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Pigs still haven’t learned how to fly. As enticing as it may sound, the weight of current evidence does not support the claims that chocolate is a miracle diet food or that eating chocolate every day is a sensible strategy for losing weight.

2)    On the other hand, dark chocolate is probably one of the healthier dessert foods. There is no reason not to enjoy an occasional bite of chocolate as part of a healthy, calorie-controlled diet.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Josephine Dye

    |

    This was very in-lighting. enjoy your news letter.

    Reply

  • Julie Donnelly

    |

    I LOVE chocolate and fortunately Shaklee has the chocolate peanut butter bars so I can get my “fix” and still feel okay about it.

    Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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