Eating Chocolate Might Help Decrease the Risk of Irregular Heartbeat

A study of 55,000 Danes found they were as much as 20 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation if consuming chocolate on a weekly basis.

Those whose hearts go aflutter over chocolate can rest at ease, according to new research.

Eating chocolate regularly might lower the risk of developing atrial fibrillation — sometimes called AFib — a heart rhythm irregularity that afflicts 33 million people worldwide and increases the chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke, according to findings published in the journal Heart on Tuesday.

Studying more than 55,000 Danes who answered questions about their eating habits and logged their medical records with researchers over the course of more than 13 years on average, the international team of scientists said women consuming one serving of chocolate a week and men eating around four servings weekly were as much as 20 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation.

“This is part of the accumulated evidence of the cardiovascular benefit of moderate chocolate intake,” said Elizabeth Mostofsky, an epidemiologist at Harvard University who co-authored the study.

Chocolate has already been demonstrated to be an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that promotes blood flow, lowers blood pressure, and helps stave off heart disease and strokes.

Prior research into chocolate’s role in preventing atrial fibrillation had been inconclusive. This study makes the link clearly, however, said Mostofsky, giving public health workers a way to combat a disease that is expected to afflict one in four adults older than 40 in their lifetimes.

“Any opportunities to identify methods to prevent atrial fibrillation would be of public health importance,” she said, adding that folks should take the research as a reason to think of chocolate, particularly cocoa-rich dark chocolate, as a heart healthy snack rather an excuse to binge. “Most chocolate products contain calories from sugar and fat. Excessive intake of chocolate would result in weight gain and other metabolic problems.”

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In an editorial in the same issue of Heart, Jonathan Piccini and Sean Pokorney of the Duke Center for Atrial Fibrillation wrote that the study was not entirely definitive because it tested a specific ethnicity — Danes — and did not account for other factors that might have played a role in chocolate eaters avoiding AFib. The researchers didn’t know whether their subjects were fit or suffered from preexisting ailments that contribute to AFib, like kidney disease and sleep apnea, or breathing problems at night, they argued.

“One of the huge challenges of any study of diet or any behavior is that those choices are often linked to other behavior or habit that we are not measuring,” said Piccini. “So someone for example who eats a certain food, especially a healthy food, might be someone who exercises more frequently or watches their weight more carefully.”

But Mostofsky said she and her colleagues factored in a range of other characteristics like diabetes, body mass, and alcohol intake that allowed them to see a connection between chocolate and healthier hearts.

She noted that other experts are now conducting trials to determine whether concentrated cocoa supplements might help improve cardiovascular systems, too. That work could provide clearer evidence of the bean’s benefits.

Despite his caveats, Piccini was quick to add that the new research was important because it held out promise for people who might develop AFib, especially since some of the causes of the disease, like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, were on the rise.

“This study gives us a lot of reason for optimism,” he said.

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