October 28th marks the holiest day of the year for women. It is a day where, regardless of any other religious faith we may have, we can focus our energies on the one true God: chocolate. You see, according to those who decide these things, October 28th is National Chocolate Day.
Getting ready for National Chocolate Day requires much preparation, as you can imagine. As such, I’m getting this post out a week ahead of time so I can concentrate my efforts on preparing for the big day. In fact, this is a rallying cry to women everywhere to start filling their bathtubs with M&Ms now. That way, when October 28th rolls around, you will be prepared to get in and revel.
As chocolate disciples, we have good reason to rejoice this year. While there have been a few scientific studies over the years suggesting that chocolate has health benefits (we all know intrinsically that it has mental health benefits at a minimum, right?), a recent study published in the British Medical Journal documents the medical field’s most comprehensive review and meta-analysis ever of the long-term effects of chocolate as a means of preventing some of the most deadly and costly afflictions of humankind: stroke, high blood pressure, heart attack, and diabetes. It is estimated that well over 20% of the world’s population is affected by these medical conditions.
With Nobel Prizes being handed out left and right this month, I am expecting to see Willy Wonka’s name called any minute (tough call for me on whether they should pick classic Gene Wilder Wonka or weird but hot Johnny Depp Wonka). If a couple of guys can win the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering receptor proteins that can recognize bad microorganisms in the body and activate innate immunity, wouldn’t it be even more obvious to give an award for discovering that everyone’s favorite treat might actually be the cure to the worldwide healthcare crisis? I mean seriously: if a spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down, maybe a couple of ounces of a Vosges Red Fire chocolate bar (Mexican ancho & chipotle chillies & Ceylon cinnamon& dark chocolate—I could swoon) can balance the budget and save the U.S. healthcare economy.
In performing the study, which is entitled “Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis,” the researchers reviewed over 4500 prior studies that linked chocolate to various cardiometabolic diseases. In the end, their analysis incorporated long-term data on over 114,000 people in the U.S., Europe and Japan. All these lucky folk got to ingest a smorgasbord of chocolate bars, chocolate drinks, chocolate candy, chocolate cookies, and the like and the studies included in the meta-analysis had clinical follow-up periods ranging from 8-16 years. I would like to know where I was during the patient recruitment for some of these trials. Clearly I would have met the criteria and I could have used a good excuse to eat all that chocolate over that extended period of time without having to sneak around. “Oh, this Ben and Jerry’s SuperFudge Chunk? Well, I’m eating it for science.” In fact, if I’d known you could engage in chocolate research for a living, I would have a PhD in biochemistry, not a Masters in political science.
Anyway, on to the findings; according to the study’s authors:
Higher levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a reduction of about a third in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders in our meta-analysis. This beneficial association was significant for any cardiovascular disease (37% reduction), diabetes (31% reduction, based on one publication), and stroke (29% reduction), but no significant association was found in relation to heart failure.
Five of the seven studies included in this meta-analysis reported a significant reduction in the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders associated with higher levels of chocolate intake (one on cocoa intake), even after adjustment for potential confounders, including age, physical activity, body mass index, smoking status, dietary factors, education, and drug use.
Punch line: Chocolate is good for you…more chocolate is better. Can I get a Hallelujah?
The study goes on to say:
These favourable effects seem mainly mediated by the high content of polyphenols present in cocoa products and probably accrued through increasing the bioavailability of nitric oxide, which subsequently might lead to improvements in endothelial function, reductions in platelet function, and additional beneficial effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and blood lipids.
Sweet! And I mean that in every sense of the word.
In theory, all you really need to know is this: From 2006-2010, the percentage of Americans who have heart disease has dropped from 6.7% to 6%. During that same period, chocolate sales have been rising by 3-4% per year. I think that says it all.
As I travel around the world of healthcare, I encounter many entrepreneurs who are building applications that help consumers track their weight, their exercise, their calories, whatever. Clearly they have missed what is a wide-open opportunity to help people track whether they are getting enough chocolate. It is damn hard to get people to stop smoking, eat less and exercise more in order to improve their cardiometabolic health, but I can’t imagine anything easier than a campaign to increase dark chocolate consumption. The cigarette pack may have a warning label that features a skull and crossbones on it, but the chocolate wrapper can feature a big fat smiley face with a thumbs up sign. The USDA can re-do that food pyramid just one more time and stick a Hershey’s Kiss right at the top—it is already the right shape.
While the British Medical Journal study does point out that binging on chocolate might be a bit counterproductive to the whole heart health/diabetes prevention thing, it also points out that chocolate could be the savior of healthcare systems not just in the U.S. and Europe, but throughout the developing world:
…the current evidence on hard and intermediate outcomes suggests that chocolate might be a viable instrument in the prevention of cardiometabolic disorders if consumed in moderation and if efforts are made to reduce the sugar and fat content of currently available products. Beyond this, considering the acceptability and popularity of chocolate, the applicability of its consumption as a recommendation might suit multiple populations. This would be particularly relevant in developing countries, where most of the cacao plantations and production sites are located (the top producers of cacao include African countries such as the Ivory Coast, Asian countries such as Indonesia, and South American countries such as Brazil) but where the processed form might not be easily available. Chocolate could therefore provide a natural, convenient, and generally welcome prophylactic against the growing epidemics of cardiometabolic disorders in developing countries.
Good and good for you. I can’t believe these guys aren’t already spending their Nobel Prize money.
I can’t end this story without my favorite Dave Barry quote: “My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start. So far today, I have finished 2 bags of M&M’s and a chocolate cake. I feel better already.”