Ah…chocolate. Every time there’s a news report about any potential health benefits associated with this addictive substance, folks run out and buy truckloads of the stuff. And now, the latest news might make some diabetics dance: research out of Hull University in England showed that diabetics who ate dark chocolate improved their cholesterol levels.
But keep reading before you run over to Costco to pick up a five-pound box of King-Size Dark Chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
First, the study was quite limited, following just 12 people with Type II diabetes. The researchers fed these 12 volunteers chocolate bars daily for a period of 16 weeks. Six of the volunteers got normal chocolate bars and six got chocolate bars enriched with polyphenols. (Hint: don’t run out and gorge on Hershey’s Special Dark thinking you’ll match the study results.) And second, those who received the enriched bars showed a small amount of improvement in their "cholesterol profiles." Overall levels of cholesterol dropped, while levels of "good" cholesterol rose.
It is true that polyphenols, also found in wine, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, have been shown to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. Among the polyphenols, the flavonoids are especially beneficial in this regard. And while it is true that flavonoids are found in chocolate, there are far better sources. Plus chocolate brings with it more than its share of fat and sugar. For example there are 16 grams of fat in bars of the U.K.’s most popular brands.
Researchers from Diabetes UK, a leading health charity in England, reacted strongly to the Hull University study. According to Director of Research, Dr. Ian Frame, "On no account should people take away the message from this study, conducted on only 12 people, that eating even a small amount of dark chocolate is going to help reduce their cholesterol levels. The tiny health benefit of this compound found in cocoa-rich chocolate would be hugely outweighed by the fat and sugar content."
It is obvious that chocolate, as we consume it, is just packed with fats, sugars, and empty calories — all things that folks with diabetes should avoid. So why should diabetics risk the possible ill effects? Clearly they shouldn’t. I’ve said before that diabetics would derive tremendous benefit form the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in flavonoids, among other things. And if diabetics want to increase their intake of flavonoids, why not focus on the foods that don’t bring added risk like berries, green tea, and the like.
Nevertheless, the pursuit of a good reason to eat chocolate occupies the interests of some scientists; the Hull University researchers are not alone in their pursuits. An earlier study, led by researchers at Penn State, showed a result parallel to that of the Hull study. It claimed that a diet rich in cocoa powder and dark chocolate had a beneficial effect on LDL ("bad cholesterol) when compared to diets that limited or excluded other sources of flavonoids, including tea, coffee, fruits, wine, onions, grape and orange juices, soybeans and other beans. The paper, published in the November 2001 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, further states: "The incorporation of dark chocolate and cocoa powder into the diet is one means of effectively increasing antioxidant intake. Furthermore, the inclusion of dark chocolate and cocoa powder in a diet that is rich in other food sources of antioxidants, such as fruit, vegetables, tea and wine, results in a high antioxidant intake and may consequently reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease."
But again, not every researcher endorses a chocolate cure for deficient diets — including researchers connected with the Penn State study. According to study leader Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, Penn State Distinguished Professor of Nutrition, "An important caveat is that chocolate be incorporated sensibly and prudently in a healthy diet that emphasizes the intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, skim milk, reduced-fat dairy products, fatty fish and lean meats, and poultry. A balanced dietary approach that includes a wide variety of foods in the diet is preferred to total exclusion of certain foods. Nonetheless, we would be remiss in endorsing unlimited quantities of chocolate."
In the end, one can only ask, "Why are scientists trying to lower cholesterol levels by providing a substance that is power-packed with the very substances that contribute to increased cholesterol levels in the first place?" I’ve written in detail about the cholesterol theory of heart disease and, frankly, it’s largely a myth. High cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease. It is a response to arterial damage caused by things like diets too high in Omega-6 fatty acids and too many acid-forming foods such as meat and animal fats, sugar, grain, and starch. Cholesterol is incorporated into plaque to repair the damage. Its guilt primarily comes from being found at the scene of the crime.
On the other hand, high cholesterol is a barometer of severe degradation in liver function since the liver has primary responsibility for regulating cholesterol levels in the body. In truth, reducing the incidence of heart disease is really about reducing the damage the average American diet causes to the linings of the arteries — not about artificially forcing down cholesterol levels with statin drugs, as is the inclination of the medical establishment. It is no accident that study after study finds that statin drugs provide no health benefits unless you’ve already suffered a heart attack.
Clearly, when it comes to diabetes, chocolate bars are part of the problem and not part of the solution. If you want chocolate, you’re better off avoiding the fats by having unadulterated cocoa powder…Aztec style. The Aztecs called it chocolatl and drank it cold, frothy, unsweetened, and spiced with chili.