MONDAY, March 26, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Here's a sweet surprise for chocoholics: A new study finds that people who eat chocolate regularly are somewhat skinnier than folks who don't indulge their sweet tooth.
The findings don't prove that chowing down on chocolate will melt off your excess pounds. It's possible that another factor is responsible for the modest difference in body mass, or it might be a statistical fluke.
But for now, study lead author Dr. Beatrice Golomb said the findings "reduce any possible guilt that might come with chocolate consumption." Golomb, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, said she hopes to better understand what's going on through future research.
As foods go, chocolate is a hard one to figure out. It includes antioxidants, substances that counteract damaging agents in the body. And consumption of chocolate has been linked in other studies to a variety of positive health effects from lower blood pressure to better cholesterol levels. On the other hand, chocolate can come with plenty of calories and fat.
In the new study, Golomb and colleagues reviewed food questionnaires filled out by nearly 1,000 people who were asked how often they ate chocolate. Their average age was 57, and 68 percent were men.
The researchers then tried to find any connections between chocolate consumption and the body mass index (BMI) of the participants. BMI is a calculation based on height and weight that is used to determine underweight, overweight and obesity in adults.
Participants' average BMI was 28 -- overweight but not obese. On average, they ate chocolate twice a week and exercised between three and four times a week.
The study found that those who ate chocolate the most often had lower BMIs than the others, even when the researchers adjusted their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by factors such as age, gender, education and fruit and vegetable consumption.
For the typical person, the difference between frequently eating or infrequently eating chocolate could account for a 5- to 7-pound difference, Golomb said.
The findings "certainly weren't explained by the chocolate eaters eating fewer calories. They ate more calories and didn't exercise any more," she said.
It's not clear, however, what kinds of chocolate the participants ate, although most would probably have interpreted the question as asking about candy, Golomb said. Milk chocolate is fattier than dark chocolate.
Golomb cautioned that the study does not say that chocolate consumption will help people lose weight.
"It is not a siren call to go out and eat 20 pounds of chocolate a day," she said.
However, the study suggests that diet composition may influence the body's metabolic processes, and therefore BMI, she said.
So why would chocolate fanciers be thinner than others? Dr. Daniela Jakubowicz, a professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel who has studied chocolate, said previous research has shown that diets that force people to avoid sweets actually make them more drawn to them. In her own research, she found that people were actually better able to tolerate a diet when they ate chocolate.
Golomb said that, ideally, future research will randomly assign some people to eat chocolate and others to avoid it. But that may be a challenge, especially if some participants refuse to go without it.
"We have a few pesky details to iron out," she said.
The study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, was published online March 26 in Archives of Internal Medicine.
For more about nutrition, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.