Nutrition and public health experts specifically target sugary beverages as a key diet ingredient to cut if we want to improve health and avoid obesity. I devoted a recent post to the rationale behind that advice.
There are, of course, many sugar-rich treats, and when kids think of sweet delights the image is of candy and chocolate, rather than of sugary drinks. Are these sweet foods as much to blame for overweight and obesity as soda?
A group of Australian researchers, led by Constantine Gasser, assumed that would be the case. Candy is a major source of added sugar in the American diet (although it’s dwarfed by the amounts consumed through drinks – on average kids take in 5 times more calories from drinks than they do from candy) and although chocolate has some health benefits, they assumed that chocolate and candy would be associated with obesity and its related diseases. In a new analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition they collected all studies that looked at the relationship between candy consumption and overweight and obesity, and found 11 such studies, which together included almost 180,000 kids and teens.
To their surprise, the meta-analysis found that the more chocolate and candy kids ate, the slimmer they tended to be. The odds of being overweight or obese were 18 percent lower among the most avid consumers of chocolate and candy.
Do thin people eat chocolate?
The authors discuss the counterintuitive results and say that: “Just like expected findings, unexpected findings can reflect the truth, bias, residual confounding, and/or chance.“
They don’t think their findings are just by chance due to the large number of people in the studies and the consistency they saw in the association between chocolate and candy and weight.
If the results are true, it might be that these sweets are quite satiating, and that people tend to eat reasonable amounts of them.
Another option is reverse causality: Kids who are overweight cut chocolate from their diet, while thin kids allow themselves some candy.
And yet another possibility is that overweight kids underreport their chocolate intake.
Overall, though, it seems like although sugary drinks and chocolate both contain high levels of sugar, the former is consistently associated with obesity and overweight and the later is not. It might be that liquids are not ‘sensed’ the same way chewable food, or that the amounts of sugar one typically gets from soda are much larger, compared to what a typical serving of chocolate would provide, or maybe it’s something else.
This isn’t permission to binge on chocolate, but every reasonable guideline allows some discretionary calories for fun and pleasure – the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest limiting sugar to less than 10 percent of calories per day.
To me, chocolate -- one of life’s great joys -- remains a good little thing to splurge on.