People who ate chocolate a few times a week or more weighed less than those who rarely indulged, according to a U.S. study involving a thousand people.
Researchers said the findings, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, don't prove that adding a candy bar to your daily diet will help you shed pounds. Nor did the total amount of chocolate consumed have an impact.
But the researchers, led by Beatrice Golomb, from the University of California San Diego, said it was possible that antioxidants in chocolate could be behind health benefits including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as decreased body weight.
"People have just assumed that because it comes with calories and it's typically eaten as a sweet, therefore it would inherently have been one way, bad," said Golomb.
She and her colleagues used data from a study on cholesterol-lowering drugs that surveyed 1,000 healthy adults on typical eating habits, including how often they ate chocolate.
The participants, who ranged from 20 to 85 years old, ate chocolate an average of twice per week and had an average body mass index, or BMI, of 28, which is considered overweight but not obese.
The researchers found that people who ate chocolate with greater frequency tended to eat more calories overall, including more saturated fat, than those who went light on the candy. But even so, chocolate lovers tended to have a lower body weight.
That was still the case after researchers accounted for age and gender, as well as how much they exercised.
The effect worked out to a 2.3 to 3.2 kg (5 to 7 lb)difference between people who ate five servings of chocolate a week compared to those who didn't eat any, Golomb said. However, it was only how often they ate chocolate, rather than the total amount, that was linked to their weight.
Past studies have tied chocolate to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and better insulin sensitivity, possibly because of antioxidants or other chemicals in cocoa.
There are a number of possible explanations for the results, said Eric Ding, a nutritionist at the Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study.
One is that poorer people stick to the basics when they're buying food and don't eat as much chocolate. Poverty has been tied to higher body weight.
Another possibility is that "people who lost weight reward themselves with chocolate, more than chocolate causing the weight loss," he told Reuters Health.
Because the new study is relatively small and couldn't prove cause-and-effect, it's hard to take any lessons from the findings, Ding said. But the key for chocolate lovers seems to be considering calories and knowing that not all chocolate is created equal.
For example, past evidence suggests that antioxidants in chocolate called flavonoids are behind any benefits tied to chocolate - and dark chocolate has the most flavonoids.
"If you consume chocolate, consume it in place of something else, rather than adding to your net daily calories. Try to consume dark chocolate," he said.
The researchers agreed that moderation is important.
"This certainly does not provide support for eating large amounts of chocolate," Golomb said. "For those of us who do eat a little bit of chocolate regularly, perhaps any guilt associated with that might be qualified."