FRIDAY, Oct. 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Even if you don't watch what you eat, your body will. That's the message from a small new study that suggests that diets "imprint" themselves on the metabolic system, attuning people to the food they prefer to chow down.
Researchers found that the bodies of chocolate fans reacted differently when they ate the candy, compared to other people.
"The body appears to become attuned to a particular diet, which can have both positive and negative health consequences, but which could also ultimately open the door to novel dietary regimes," said study co-author Sunil Kochhar, a researcher with the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The Nestlé company, best known in the United States for its chocolate products, paid for the study, which is expected to be published in the Nov. 2 issue of the American Chemical Society's Journal of Proteome Research.
At issue is the body's metabolism system, which converts food into energy. According to Kochhar, scientists are exploring whether it may be possible to detect metabolic problems and help people improve their metabolisms -- and weight control -- through diet.
In the study, the researchers recruited 11 men who love chocolate and 11 men who described themselves as "indifferent" to the sweet treat. Over a five-day period, the participants ate either daily doses of 50 grams of different kinds of Nestlé Cailler chocolate (milk chocolate, dark chocolate, etc.) or a placebo.
The use of chocolate was "not really the point of this study," Kochhar said, but it did allow researchers to look at links between diet and metabolism.
Analysis of blood and urine samples found that the chocolate lovers had a specific metabolic profile -- low levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol and marginally higher levels of a beneficial protein called albumin. It didn't matter if they ate chocolate during the five days or not.
The activity of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system was different in the chocolate fans, too.
"We now know that people's metabolic state is, in part, determined by their tastes and selection of food," Kochhar said. "In itself, this is not surprising. But what we have now is a way of measuring the [imprints] and as such may be able to help people make better food choices in the future."
So, will the research help people avoid being fat? It's not clear yet, Kochhar said, but the research is a "first step" toward manipulating metabolisms to improve health.
The next step, he said, is to look at possible gender differences by studying women and doing more research into how diet can affect the germs in digestive systems.
Kochhar said women weren't included in the first study, because previous research had shown metabolic variations linked to the menstrual cycle. But the researchers plan to include women in future clinical trials on metabolic responses to chocolate to see if there's a gender-based reaction to the candy.
Check an exhibit on the science of chocolate at exploratorium.edu.