Eating chocolate ‘lowers risk of irregular heartbeat’

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It’s a guilty pleasure that men need six times a week but women can get by with just once - it’s eating chocolate.

New research shows that tucking in helps prevent an irregular heartbeat.

But before women start unwrapping their favourite selection box, the effect works best for them if they enjoy one weekly chocolate treat - while men need to tuck in up to six times a week to lower the risk of heart flutter, also known as atrial fibrillation.

The study, published online by the journal Heart suggests regularly eating chocolate may be linked to a lower risk of developing the heart rhythm irregularity.

And the associations seemed to be strongest for one weekly serving for women and between two and six weekly servings for men, according to the findings.

Atrial fibrillation affects more than 33 million people worldwide, with one in four adults likely to develop it at some point during their life course.

‘No cure’

Researchers say it’s not clear exactly what causes it, but there is currently no cure, and no obvious contenders for prevention either.

Given that regular chocolate consumption, particularly of dark chocolate, has been linked to improvements in various indicators of heart health, the researchers wanted to see if it might also be associated with a lower rate of atrial fibrillation.

They drew on 55,502 participants, aged between 50 and 64, from the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study.

The participants provided information on their usual weekly chocolate consumption, with one serving classified as one ounce (30 g). But they were not asked to specify which type of chocolate they ate.

Most chocolate eaten in Denmark is milk chocolate.

Information on heart disease risk factors, diet, and lifestyle was obtained when the participants were recruited to the study. Their health was then tracked using national registry data on episodes of hospital treatment and deaths.

Those who ate the most chocolate tended to consume more daily calories, with a higher proportion of these coming from chocolate, and to be more highly educated than those at the lower end of the scale.

During the monitoring period, which averaged 13.5 years, 3,346 new cases of atrial fibrillation were diagnosed.

After accounting for other factors related to heart disease, the newly diagnosed atrial fibrillation rate was 10 per cent lower for one to three servings of chocolate a month than it was for less than one serving a month.

The difference was also apparent at other levels of consumption: 17 per cent lower for one weekly serving; 20 per cent lower for two to six weekly servings; and 14 per cent lower for one or more daily servings.

Men vs women vs chocolate

When the data were analysed by sex, the incidence of atrial fibrillation was lower among women than among men irrespective of intake, but the associations between higher chocolate intake and lower risk of heart flutter remained - even after accounting for potentially influential factors.

The strongest association for women seemed to be one weekly serving of chocolate (21 per cent lower risk), while for men, it was two to six weekly servings (23 per cent lower risk).

Study lead author Doctor Elizabeth Mostofsky, of Harvard Chan School in the US, said: “Despite the fact that most of the chocolate consumed in our sample probably contained relatively low concentrations of the potentially protective ingredients, we still observed a robust statistically significant association - suggesting that even small amounts of cocoa consumption can have a positive health impact.”

She added: “Our study adds to the accumulating evidence on the health benefits of moderate chocolate intake and highlights the importance of behavioural factors for potentially lowering the risk of arrhythmias.”

But Dr Mostofsky warned: “Eating excessive amounts of chocolate is not recommended because many chocolate products are high in calories from sugar and fat and could lead to weight gain and other metabolic problems.

“But moderate intake of chocolate with high cocoa content may be a healthy choice.”