Tag Archives: chocolate

Is Chocolate Good For The Heart?

While in Paris recently,  allegedly researching the French Paradox, the skeptical cardiologist and his Eternal Fiancee’ participated in a Food Tour (Paris By Mouth).  Along with 2 other American couples, we were guided and educated by a Parisian food/wine expert as we wandered from one small shop to another in the St. Germain district of the Left Bank.

We collected the perfect Baguette Monge from Eric Kayser, delicious rillettes, terrine, and saucisson from Charcuterie Saint Germain, amazing cheese from Fromager Laurent Dubois, delightful  pastries from Un Dimanche a Paris, and unique and delicious chocolate from Patrick Roger.

The tour ended at La Cave du Senat wine shop, where we descended into a stone cellar and tasted all of the delicious foods while drinking wonderful wines.

The French Paradox refers to the fact that the French are among the world’s highest consumers of saturated fat, but have among the world’s lowest rates of cardiovascular disease. For those nutritional experts still obsessed with the dangers of all saturated fats, this poses a conundrum.

Cheese And The French Paradox

France consumes more cheese (27 kg per person per year) than any other country in the world (the US only consumes 16 kg per capita). Unlike Americans who have embraced low fat or skim versions of cheese, the French predominantly consume full fat cheese.

I wrote In Defense of Real Cheese  in 2014 and extolled the heart-healthy virtues of eating full fat , non factory-processed cheese.

Perhaps the French are protected against heart disease by their high consumption and love of real cheese ?

Chocolate And The French Paradox

Whereas cheese contains saturated fat and has been unfairly stigmatized as unhealthy, chocolate, similarly with high saturated fat content, seems to have been coronated as the king of food that is yummy but paradoxically is also heart healthy.

Could chocolate be the enigmatic protector of the hearts of the French?

Back on Boulevard Saint-Germain we entered the shop of Patrick Roger, who won the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France, in the craft of chocolate in 2000. The MOF is France’s way of recognizing the best artisans in various fields and occurs every 4 years. The standards are so high that in 2015 none of the 9 chocolatier competitors were felt to merit receiving the award.

The French clearly take their chocolate seriously but they don’t top the international charts at per capita consumption.

The Swiss consume 20 pounds of chocolate per year, whereas the French and US are tied for 9th, consuming 9.3 and 9.5 lbs. (Infographic from Forbes

 

 

Chocolate And The Heart

I’ve been meaning to write a post on chocolate and the heart since my encounter with high end chocolatiers in Paris and Bruges, and especially since May when there was much fanfare over a Danish study showing less atrial fbrillation in high chocolate consumers.

A NYTimes piece stimulated by the Danish study and entitled “Why Chocolate May Be Good For The Heart” typified the media headlines  and summarized the study thusly:

Scientists tracked diet and health in 55,502 men and women ages 50 to 64. They used a well-validated 192-item food-frequency questionnaire to determine chocolate consumption.

After controlling for total calorie intake, smoking, alcohol consumption, body mass index and other factors, they found that compared with people who ate no chocolate, those who had one to three one-ounce servings a month had a 10 percent reduced relative risk for atrial fibrillation, those who ate one serving a week had a 17 percent reduced risk, and those who ate two to six a week had a 20 percent reduced risk.

Previous large, well done observational studies also show that high chocolate consumption compared to no consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Of course these being observational studies with only weak (but significant) associations, we cannot conclude that chocolate consumption actually  lowers the risk of developing afib or cardiovascular disease (causation.)

My favorite graph to hammer home this point is below and plots how much each country consumes in chocolate, versus the number of nobel laureates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a good correlation here (Pearson’s (no relation unfortunately) correlation coefficient or r value) which is highly significant (p value <.0001). But does anyone seriously think a country can boost its Nobel Laureate production by promoting chocolate consumption?

The authors of the Danish afib trial, admit the possibility of residual or unmeasured confounding variables as a limitation in their discussion:

Although we had extensive data on diet, lifestyle and comorbidities, we cannot preclude the possibility of residual or unmeasured confounding. For instance, data were not available on renal disease and sleep apnoea. However, after adjusting for age, smoking status and other potential confounders, the association was somewhat attenuated but remained statistically significant.

Most chocolate authorities proclaim the health  benefits of dark chocolate over milk chocolate but in this Danish study:

We did not have information on the type of chocolate or cocoa concentration. However, most of the chocolate consumed in Denmark is milk chocolate. In the European Union, milk chocolate must contain a minimum of 30% cocoa solids and dark chocolate must contain a minimum of 43% cocoa solids; the corresponding proportions in the USA are 10% and 35%.16 Despite the fact that most of the chocolate consumed in our sample probably contained relatively low concentrations of the potentially protective ingredients, we still observed a robust statistically significant association, suggesting that our findings may underestimate the protective effects of dark chocolate.

Despite the fact that the participants in the Danish AFib study were likely mostly consuming  milk chocolate rather than dark chocolate,  the lead author of the study has been quoted as saying “dark chocolate with higher cocoa content is better… because it is the cocoa, not the milk and sugar, that provides the benefit.”

The Chocolate-Industrial -Research Complex

Julia Volluz, in a nicely written piece at Vox  entitled “Dark chocolate is now a health food. Here’s how that happened.” describes how “over the past 30 years, food companies like Nestlé, Mars, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey’s— among the world’s biggest producers of chocolate — have poured millions of dollars into scientific studies and research grants that support cocoa science.”

Here at Vox, we examined 100 Mars-funded health studies, and found they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate — promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease. This research — and the media hype it inevitably attracts — has yielded a clear shift in the public perception of the products.

“Mars and [other chocolate companies] made a conscious decision to invest in science to transform the image of their product from a treat to a health food,” said New York University nutrition researcher Marion Nestle (no relation to the chocolate maker). “You can now sit there with your [chocolate bar] and say I’m getting my flavonoids.”

Flavonols and Blood Pressure

Dark chocolate and cocoa products are rich in chemical compounds called flavanols. Flavanols have attracted interest as they might help to reduce blood pressure, a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The blood pressure-lowering properties of flavanols are thought to be related to widening of the blood vessels, caused by nitric oxide.

The latest Cochrane Review on this topic commented on the poor quality of the studies involved:

Studies were short, mostly between two and12 weeks, with only one of 18 weeks. The studies involved 1804 mainly healthy adults. They provided participants with 30 to 1218 mg of flavanols (average of 670 mg) in 1.4 to 105 grams of cocoa products per day in the active intervention group. Seven of the studies were funded by companies with a commercial interest in their results, and the reported effect was slightly larger in these studies, indicating possible bias.

This graph from Volluz’s Vox article demonstrates how much chocolate you would need to consume to get the average amount of flavanols that participants in these studies received:

The Cochrane review felt there was

moderate-quality evidence that flavanol-rich chocolate and cocoa products cause a small (2 mmHg) blood pressure-lowering effect in mainly healthy adults in the short term.

Thus, for a very small drop in blood pressure you would have to make chocolate the main source of calories in your daily diet.

Consuming such large amounts of chocolate, even dark chocolate, would drastically increase your sugar consumption.

Further weakening any conclusions on the benefit of chocolate are that these are very short-term studies with markedly different baseline BPs, ages, and large variations in flavanol dosage.

Is Your Chocolate Produced By Slaves?

After reading the Danish AFib article, I purchased several bars of Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate that caught my eye at the Whole Foods checkout counter. The bars had interesting wrappers and on the inside of the wrapper I discovered that Tony’s Chocolonely’s claim to fame is that it is “slave-free.”

Per Wikipedia:

Tony’s Chocolonely is a Dutch confectionery company focused on producing and selling chocolate closely following fair trade practices, strongly opposing slavery and child labour by partnering with trading companies in Ghana and Ivory Coast to buy cocoa beans directly from the farmers, providing them with a fair price for their product and combating exploitation.

The slogan of the company is: “Crazy about chocolate, serious about people“.

I was previously unaware of the problem of child slavery and cocoa production. If you’d like to read more about it start here.

The Tony’s Chocoloney was so tasty I ended up consuming vast quantities of it at the end of the day and it disappeared rapidly. Currently the skeptical cardiologist’s house is chocolate free.

Should Chocolate Be Considered A Super Food or A Slave Food?

I can’t recommend chocolate to my patients as a treatment for high blood pressure or to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke on the basis of the flimsy evidence available.

If you like chocolate, the evidence suggests no adverse effects of consuming it on a regular basis.

As far as flavanols obtained from cocoa and their benefits for cardiovascular disease, I eagerly awaiit the result of the ongoing Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), a randomized trial looking at whether daily supplements of cocoa extract and/or a standard multivitamin reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Patients and readers should recognize that there is an ongoing research/media campaign by Big Chocolate to convince them that chocolate is a SuperFood which can also be a dessert.

Flavanoidly Yours,

-ACP

Why Did I Go Into Atrial Fibrillation?

The skeptical cardiologist is asked this  question or  variations of it (such as  what caused me to go out of rhythm?) on a daily basis.

Most patients would like to have a reason for why their atria suddenly decided to fibrillate.  It’s understandable. If they could identify the reason perhaps they could stop it from happening again.

There are two variations on this question:

For the patient who has just been diagnosed with afib the question is really “what is the underlying reason for me developing this condition?”

For the patient who has had afib for a while and it comes and goes seemingly randomly the question is “what caused the afib at this time? i.e. what triggers my episodes?”

For most patients, there is no straighforward and simple answer to either one of these questions

The Underlying Cause of Atrial Fibrillation

My stock response to this first question goes like this:

“Atrial fibrillation is associated with getting older and having high blood pressure. 10 % of individual >/= 80 years have atrial fibrillation. 90% of patients with afib have hypertension.

Aging and hypertension may increase scarring or damage in the left atrium or pulmonary veins that drain into the left atrium setting up abnormal electrical signals.

There are some specific things that cause afib and we will be doing a complete history and physical and some testing to check for the most common. We’ll check you for thyroid or electrolyte abnormalities and we will do an echocardiogram to look for any structural problems with your heart.

If we do find a treatable cause such as hyperthyroidism or a cardiac valve problem we will fix that and the afib may go away, however chances are we won’t find a specific reason why you developed atrial fibrillation.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, let’s take a close look at your lifestyle. Are you overweight? If so, losing 10% of your body weight will substantially lower your risk of recurrent atrial fibrillation. Let’s get you exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, Make sure your sleep is optimized and your stress minimized.”

If you’d like a more sophisticated look into what causes afib take a look at this graphic from a recent paper.

Current theory has it that factors that we know are associated with atrial fibrillation  including obesity, hypertension and sleep apnea cause atrial structural abnormalities or remodeling which then create various atrial electrical abnormalities.

 

Exhaustive List of Causes

If you’d like an exhaustive list of factors associated with atrial fibrillation, you can memorize the acronym P.I.R.A.T.E.S. which is sometimes used by medical students to remember the causes of atrial fibrillation which include:

  • Pulmonary disease (COPD, PE)/Phaeochromocytoma
  • Ischemia (ACS)
  • Rheumatic heart disease (mitral stenosis)
  • Anemia (high output failure/tachycardia)/Atrial myxoma/Acid-base disturbance
  • Thyrotoxicosis (tachycardia)
  • Ethanol/Endocarditis/Electrolyte disturbance (hypokalaemia, hypomagnesaemia)/Elevated BP
  • Sepsis/Sick Sinus Syndrome/Sympathomimetics (Drugs)

And here’s a cute  mnemonic from the Family Practice Notebook using ATRIAL FIB itself (although you have to use the ph of pheochromocytoma to make the f of fib)

  1. Alcohol Abuse
  2. Thyroid Disease
  3. Rheumatic Heart Disease
  4. Ischemic Heart Disease
  5. Atrial Myxoma
  6. Lung (Pulmonary Embolism, Emphysema)
  7. Pheochromocytoma
  8. Idiopathic
  9. Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

Both of these mnemonics are a little outdated. For example, rheumatic mitral stenosis is quite rare as a cause of afib in the US but  degenerative and functional mitral regurgitation is a common cause.

Ischemic heart disease (aka coronary heart disease) isn’t felt to cause atrial fibrillation unless it results in a myocardial infarction and subsequent heart failure. Way too many cardiac catheterizations are performed on patients who present with atrial fibrillation by doctors who don’t know this.

Congenital heart defects (not mentioned in either mnemonic) especially atrial septal defects often are associated with afib

There may be case reports of pheochromocytoma (a catecholamine-secreting neuroendocrine tumor) causing afib but they are few and far between.

Finally, genetics clearly play a role in the younger patient with afib without any known risk factors. One of my patients and his twin brother both developed symptomatic afib in their 40s.

In The Chronic Afibber What Triggers An Episode?

Alas, for most afibbers we won’t identify specific reasons why you go in and out of afib although there are some triggers you should definitely avoid such as excessive alcohol.

Some of the “causes” listed in the mnemonic are acute triggers of afib episodes.

For example low potassium or magnesium (typically induced by diuretics, diarrhea or vomiting) can bring on episodes .(See my discussion on potassium and PVCS here-much of it is relevant to afib.)

And I  have definitely seen patients go  into atrial fibrillation who have acute pulmonary problems such as pneumonia, pulmonary embolism or exacerbation of COPD.  In these cases, it is felt that the lung process raises pressure in the pulmonary arteries thereby  putting strain on the right heart leading to higher right atrial pressures.

Sleep apnea is associated with afib and I have had a few cases where after identifying that a patient’s  afib always began during sleep we were able to substantially lower episodes by treatment of sleep apnea.

Pericarditis with inflammation adjacent to the left atrium not uncommonly causes  afib. This is the likely mechanism for the afib that occurs frequently after cardiac surgery. Since pericarditis may never recur (especially in the cardiac surgery patient) we think the risk of afib recurring is low in these patients.

Anything that raises stress and stimulates the sympathomimetic nervous system can be a trigger. For example, a young and otherwise healthy patient of mine went into afib after encountering a car in flames along the side of the road. We found that beta-blockers (which block the sympathetic nervous system) helped prevent her episodes.

Some patients have odd but reproducible triggers. One of my patients routinely went into afib when he ate ice cream. I had a simple , very effective treatment plan for him.

Caffeine and Chocolate

Many afibbers have been told to avoid caffeine but a recent study of 34,000 women found that there was no increased risk of afib with increasing caffeine content and no sign that any of the individual contributors to caffeine in the diet (coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate) were more likely to cause afib.

Higher chocolate consumption, in fact, has recently been linked to a lower rate of afib. An observational  study of 55 thousand Danish men and women found that those who consumed 2 to 6 servings per week of 1 oz (30 grams) of chocolate had a 20% lower rate of clinically apparent afib.

Alcohol and Atrial Fibrillation

Binge drinking has long been known to cause acute atrial fibrillation.

However, it appears that even light to moderate chronic alcohol consumption increases the risk of going into atrial fibrillation.

This graphic from an excellent recent review of the topic gives the potential mechanisms:

The review concludes that although light to moderate alcohol consumption lowers your risk of dying, any alcohol consumption increases your risk of afib.

This graph shows the relationship between dying from heart disease (red line) and risk of going into afib (blue line) and amount of alcohol consumed.

Looking at the 15 drinks per week point on the x-axis (about 2 drinks per day) we see that your CV mortality is reduced by 20% whereas your risk of afib has increased by 20%.

A better point on the x-axis is 7 (1 drink per day) which has a 25% lower CV mortality but only a 10% higher risk of afib.

Whatever caused you to go into afib the good news is that with lifestyle changes and the care of a good cardiologist chances are excellent that you can live a normal, happy, healthy , long and active life.

Etiologically Yours,

ACP