Chocolate and Atrial Fibrillation: Protective or Wishful Thinking?

A recent study suggests regular chocolate consumption can help lower your risk of afib, but this Halloween, leave the candy for the kids.

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Chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, often gets tabbed as a heart-healthy treat. The idea is that the flavanols in chocolate have disease-fighting antioxidant power that preserves the health of your blood vessels, and may have other properties that improve blood pressure and help prevent blood clots. Flavanols are a type of flavanoid, a substance also found in fruits and vegetables that helps protect plants from toxins and environmental damage.

A recent study out of Denmark makes another case for nibbling on chocolate in the name of cardiovascular health. Researchers found an association between chocolate consumption and a lower risk of atrial fibrillation (afib), a common heart rhythm disturbance.

But with Halloween fast approaching, you may want to hold off keeping some chocolate goodies for yourself, recommends Daniel Cantillon, MD, an electrophysiologist with Cleveland Clinic.

“I think we really have to caution our patients against consuming excessive amounts of sugar treats, especially those who are obese or have diabetes, because we know that these kinds of foods can be directly harmful,” Dr. Cantillon says.

Chocolate Pros and Cons

Chocolate Heart

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Dark chocolate and its health-boosting flavanols may be good for your heart, but only in small doses. And only if it’s not too processed or loaded with lots of added sugar, saturated fats and other unhealthy ingredients. The more processed chocolate is, the more flavanols have been lost.

Cocoa powder that is also relatively unprocessed is better for you than Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Dutch processing involves the addition of an alkali to neutralize the natural acidity of cocoa powder.

While dark chocolate may have more heart-healthy benefits than milk chocolate, you still have to read the label. Some dark chocolate products include more sugar, fat and additives than milk chocolate products.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that all dark chocolate is good for you. Indeed, the idea that chocolate is a heart-healthy food is something of a myth that continues to draw attention. It’s also lured many well-meaning people into eating food that is adding to their waistlines rather than protecting their hearts.

It’s also worth noting that there is no recommended serving size for dark chocolate. There is also no suggested amount of chocolate experts think is just right for weekly consumption. Dr. Cantillon suggests that if you really want to keep chocolate in your life, have a one-ounce piece a few times a week.

Your Diet and Afib

Afib is one of the most common arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) in the world. (To learn more, read the cover story in this month’s Heart Advisor.) And because afib raises your risk of stroke and other cardiovascular problems, it’s important to avoid afib in the first place.

This isn’t always easy, as congenital heart defects and other uncontrollable risk factors may be at play. But certain lifestyle choices can offer a little protection. One of the most important steps you can take is to maintain a healthy weight. This not only helps lower your risk of developing afib, but it may reduce the frequency and severity of afib episodes.

“For people who have AFib and are also obese, there is good scientific evidence that losing weight and getting to a more healthy body mass index can be effective in reducing the amount of atrial fibrillation that our patients are experiencing,” Dr. Cantillon says.

Eating more chocolate certainly isn’t recommended for weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight. A variety of fruits and vegetables is always recommended. You can get flavanoids and nutrients from berries and other plant-based foods.

If you’re ever unsure about the benefits or risks of dark chocolate or any food, talk with your doctor or a dietitian.

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