Dark chocolate as a dietary aid? Reactions mixed

Published: Sunday, Sept. 11 2011 12:46 p.m. MDT

Here's a bit of tasty health news. A study just out found that women who are trying to lose weight can do so even if they have a small chocolate or other sweet treat.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The researchers, who were from Pennsylvania State University's Department of Nutritional Sciences, said it is hard to stay on a diet that has calorie restrictions because they often say you can't have certain foods. Eventually, people may get tired of doing without foods they crave and so they cave in and the diet is blown.

"However, a low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet has the potential to accommodate a daily snack without exceeding energy requirements, even during weight loss," the researchers wrote in the study.

But there's a bittersweet part, as well. The study was funded in part by Hershey, which makes some nervous about the study's objectivity.

They're not the first, though, to say it's worth giving dark chocolate a shot. A column by Joanna Weiss in the Boston Globe details how one expert in childhood obesity, Dr. David Ludwig, gives his young patients a small square of dark chocolate — "the rich, bitter stuff" — and calls it health food. He also gives the children "a lesson in how to eat. Smell your food. Then lick it. Then chew it slowly. Swallow. Take note of every sensation in your mouth and in your stomach," she wrote, calling it an experiment in "mindful eating," which is one approach to defeating obesity.

Studies over the years have shown other good health effects of consuming dark chocolate, like the story on WebMD that says eating a dark chocolate square each day keeps the doctor away.

Dark chocolate is on Health's list of super foods, along with pears, grapefruit and others.

These particular researchers looked at what happened when study subjects were given either a daily dark chocolate or non-chocolate snack. To do it, they got 26 overweight and obese women, all pre-menopause, and randomly assigned 13 to each type of snack for 18 weeks. They measured their body weight and hip and waist circumference, and body fat composition, lean mass and more at the beginning of the study and at the end. They also looked at energy and macronutrient intakes, estimated from four-day food records.

The women went to a weekly nutrition class and learned a diet plan based on food exchanges and portion-size control. The diets were set up so that each woman received 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day. The snacks were a sugarless non-cocoa breakfast drink and fruit flavored licorice snacks or small dark chocolate bits to eat twice a day.

At the end of the study's four months, women in both groups had lost an average of 11 pounds, as well as some girth.

It showed, the researchers said, that you don't have to give up all sweets to lose weight. And having them may prevent women from dropping the diet because of cravings.

"Women think about going on a diet and think they have to deprive themselves of their favorite foods, but that's really not the case if you incorporate them in a portion-controlled way," said Kathryn Piehowski, one of the researchers.

"I think allowing snacks and allowing sweets and a reward for exercising or a reward for sticking to your healthy foods is good," Debra Keast, from Food & Nutrition Database Research Inc., who was not involved in the new study, told Reuter's Diane Pittman. "But I think there are probably other foods that might be more satiating to eat between meals, if the objective is to hold you over to the next meal so you're not feeling so hungry that you have to gorge when you actually sit down to eat."

But lest anyone go overboard, there is a different perspective. Researcher Travis Saunders, who clearly was skeptical, summarized that view in a 2009 blog when he wrote that "unlike most super foods like Acai Berry, whose proponents just make things up, there is some legitimate research suggesting that dark chocolate has modest impact on blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors, although the research is far from conclusive at this point."

The big problem, he notes, is that most of the research on the benefits of chocolate "are associated with the chocolate industry. The fact that a study is associated with an industry doesn't automatically mean that it is poorly done, but it does make it more likely that they will find a favorable result," he wrote on his blog, called Obesity Panacea. The subtitle is "two researchers in pursuit of a cure for obesity."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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