It may sound counter-intuitive, but Penn State researchers are reporting that a few cups of hot cocoa — or other forms of chocolate — may actually help obese people control diabetes and other inflammation-related diseases, based on a new study of mice.
The study, published online in the European Journal of Nutrition, found laboratory mice fed cocoa as part of a high-fat diet experienced less obesity-related inflammation than those on the same diet without the supplement.
Lead researcher Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science at Penn State, said the mice ate the human equivalent of 10 tablespoons of cocoa powder — about four or five cups of hot cocoa — during a 10-week period. The results showed several indicators of inflammation and diabetes in the mice fed the cocoa were much lower and almost identical to those in mice fed a healthier low-fat diet. For example, the cocoa-eating mice had about 27 percent lower plasma insulin levels — signaling the presence of diabetes — than the other mice.
"What surprised me was the magnitude of the effect," Lambert said. "There wasn't as big of an effect on the body weight as we expected, but I was surprised at the dramatic reduction of inflammation and fatty liver disease."
The researchers also found cocoa reduced the levels of liver triglycerides in mice by about 32 percent. Elevated triglyceride levels are a sign of fatty liver disease and are related to inflammation and diabetes.
"Most obesity researchers tend to steer clear of chocolate because it is high in fat, high in sugar and is usually considered an indulgence," Lambert said. "However, cocoa powder is low in fat and low in sugar. We looked at cocoa because it contains a lot of polyphenolic compounds, so it is analogous to things like green tea and wine, which researchers have been studying for some of their health benefits."
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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