It worked for mice, so could the chocolate diet work for you?
Penn State researchers have identified cocoa powder as a potential wonder drug for the health of those suffering liver damage due to obesity, according to experiments conducted on high-fat-fed mice.
Nutritionists are already well aware that cocoa, the primary ingredient in chocolate desserts and hot cocoa, contains relatively high levels of fiber, iron and antioxidants — despite the fact that it’s often also accompanied with plenty of sugar, a major factor in weight gain and poor health.
The aim of the study was not only to facilitate weight loss, though. Researchers were hoping to identify means by which obese individuals can improve their overall health, particularly in terms of non-alcohol-related fatty liver disease, which affects more than 3 million Americans per year.
“While it is typically considered an indulgence food because of its high sugar and fat content, epidemiological and human-intervention studies have suggested that chocolate consumption is associated with reduced risk of cardio-metabolic diseases, including stroke, coronary heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” said lead study author Joshua Lambert, a professor of food science at Penn’s College of Agricultural Sciences, in a press release tied to the study.
“So, it made sense to investigate whether cocoa consumption had an effect on non-alcohol-related fatty liver disease, which is commonly associated with human obesity,” Lambert said. Furthermore, past mice studies concerning obesity have proven indicative of human metabolic processes.
Published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, the findings revealed that, by supplementing cocoa powder in their diets, the mice gained weight at a rate 21% lower than those who did not receive doses of cocoa. They also demonstrated lower spleen weights — a marker for reduced inflammation.
After eight weeks of supplementation, those mice showed 28% less fat in their livers compared to control mice, 56% lower levels of oxidative stress and 75% lower levels of damage to the liver’s DNA — all of which are factors of inflammation, cancer and other health concerns.
What makes the study results particularly noteworthy is the accessibility of its methods: by administering “physiologically achievable dose[s]” of cocoa — an amount that could feasibly be consumed by humans.
“Doing the calculations, for people it works out to about 10 tablespoons of cocoa powder a day,” Lambert said. “Or, if you follow the directions on the Hershey’s box of cocoa powder, that’s about five cups of hot cocoa a day.”
Based on the results, Lambert suggests substituting low or no-sugar cocoa for high-calorie snack foods.
“This exchange is potentially beneficial, especially in combination with a healthy overall diet and increased physical activity,” said Lambert, who believes that chemicals in cocoa may inhibit enzymes that aid in digesting dietary fats and carbs, though more research is needed.
“If you go to the gym and work out, and your reward is you go home and have a cup of cocoa, that may be something that helps get you off the couch and moving around,” he said.
That’s not all it helps, according to an unrelated study published in November that revealed hot chocolate may also boost brain function thanks to cocoa’s high degree of flavanols, which are known to improve cardiovascular and cognitive functions in adults.