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A new health benefit of chocolate: a reduced risk of AFib?

While the so-called “chocoholics” have gotten a bad rap over the years, a new study has found that eating a small amount of chocolate every week or so can decrease your risk of developing a serious type of irregular heartbeat.

The study, published in the journal Heart, created from data collected for a long-term study of about 55,500 people in Denmark. The participants were between 50 and 64 years old when the study began, and provided information about their diet, when they entered the study between 1993 and 1997. Researchers then linked the diet data for Denmark’s national health registers to see who was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib).

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AFib is a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can lead to a thrombosis, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. In the United States, at least 2.7 million people are diagnosed with it, according to the American Heart Association.

On the basis of their data, 3,346 cases of AFib occurred in the study participants over an average of 13.5 years. Those who ate one serving is about 1 gram of chocolate per week, 17 percent less likely to be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation by the end of the study than those who reported eating chocolate less than once per month.

Those who ate 2 to 6 grams per week are less likely to be diagnosed with AFib, while those who ate more than an ounce of chocolate per day were 16 percent less likely to have the condition. For women, the largest reduction of the risk connected to eating one serving of chocolate per week. For men, the greatest reduction of the risk associated with eating two to six servings per week.

“I think our message here is that moderate chocolate intake as part of a healthy diet is an option,” lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky, from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told Reuters.

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Mostofsky, the team said that they cannot definitively conclude that chocolate prevents AFib, eating cocoa and cocoa-containing foods can help the health of the heart because they contain a high volume of flavanols, which are compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, blood vessel-relaxing, and anti-oxidant properties.

“As part of a healthy diet, a moderate intake of chocolate is a healthy snack choice,” Mostofsky said.

Researchers warned that they were not able to measure for things like kidney disease or sleep apnea, among the participants, which can also affect the risk of AFib. The data also suggested those who ate the most chocolate consumed more calories, but had a lower body mass index.

“It is very likely — if I had to bet — that these people were more physically active,” Alice Lichtenstein, director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston, told Reuters. Lichtenstein was not involved in the study.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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