Eat chocolate, get healthier?

Not so fast.

The medicinal properties of chocolate, and cocoa in particular, have long been lauded, from their positive effects on blood clotting and the immune system, to the psychological benefits of improved concentration and increased endorphins. Writings from as far back as the 1600s describe using cocoa, which translates from Greek to “food of the gods,” for stimulating healthy spleen and digestive functions.

Fast forward to the present, when the average American will consume the equivalent of 10,000 chocolate bars in their lifetime. Americans, in fact, consume approximately half the world’s supply of chocolate. What could this mean for their health?

In an analysis published in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network Open journal, researchers found “probable or convincing evidence” that eating chocolate was linked with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. They estimated that consuming just 10 grams–the equivalent of about a third of an ounce of chocolate–each day is associated with a 6%  reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease.

We asked Maya Vadiveloo, associate professor of nutrition and food sciences from the University of Rhode Island, to share her expert opinion:

Q:  Will eating chocolate improve our health?

A:  I don’t think that chocolate, like many other foods that people might consider the new ‘superfood,’ is going to inherently make you healthier, although a little bit of dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa added to your smoothie is probably OK.

Q: What is your overall take on the results of this review?

A: The JAMA meta analysis demonstrates that there appear to be beneficial aspects of some of the substances found in cocoa, including flavanols. But, given the quantities associated with the manner in which most people consume chocolate, and the increased dairy fat and sugar, people should be cautious.

Q: Should we consume chocolate on a regular basis?

A: Most forms of chocolate we eat are calorie dense. Increasing your consumption is going to add significant calories, and any resulting weight gain could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease more than if you didn’t incorporate chocolate. Be aware of portion sizes, and realize that no one food is going to be a magic bullet for improving your health.

I recommend eating a balanced diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. You can indulge in chocolate and other snacks occasionally, but it’s important to frame them as a treat.

Maya Vadiveloo, Ph.D., RD, FAHA, is a registered dietitian and nutritional epidemiologist whose research focuses on using behavioral theory to favorably influence food choices, dietary quality, weight control, and eventually cardiovascular health. She serves on the national Nutrition Committee for the American Heart Association’s Lifestyle and Epidemiology Council and frequently serves as an expert in national nutrition-related news stories.