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Chocolate Fights Diabetes, Obesity-Related Inflammation in Mice

Update Date: Jun 12, 2013 12:48 PM EDT

Now there's another reason to love chocolate.  A new study reveals that chocolate can effectively fight obesity-related inflammation.

Scientists found that drinking a few cups of hot cocoa could help obese people better control inflammation-related diseases like diabetes.

The new study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found mice fed cocoa along with a high-fat diet experienced less obesity-related inflammation than mice fed the same high-fat diet without the supplement.

Researchers the experimental mice ate the human equivalent of 10 tablespoons of cocoa powder (four or five cups of cocoa) during a 10-week period.

"What surprised me was the magnitude of the effect," researcher Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science at Penn State said in a news release. "There wasn't as big of an effect on the body weight as we expected, but I was surprised at the dramatic reduction of inflammation and fatty liver disease."

Lambert and his team found that several indicators of inflammation and diabetes in mice fed the cocoa supplement were significantly lower than the mice that were fed the high-fat diet without the cocoa powder.  What's more, researchers found that mice on the high-fat diet and cocoa supplement had levels of inflammation and diabetes that were almost identical to the ones found in mice fed a low-fat diet in the control group.

Mice given cocoa had about 27 percent lower plasma insulin levels than mice that were not given the supplement. Researchers explain that high levels of insulin often signals that a patient has diabetes. Mice given cocoa also had a little more than 32 percent lower levels of liver triglycerides. Having higher triglyceride levels are a sign of fatty liver disease and are related to inflammation and diabetes.

Mice on the chocolate powder also saw a sight but significant drop in the rate of body weight gain, researchers added.

Previous studies have consistently linked obesity-related chronic inflammation to several disease including type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease. However, the reason for the inflammation response is still unknown.

Researchers believe that the excess fat may trigger a distress signal that activates immune cells and causes inflammation.  They say cocoa may help reduce the precursors that act as a distress signal to trigger this inflammatory response.

Another theory is that excess fat in the diet hampers the gut barrier function, or the body's ability to keep a bacterial component called endotoxin from entering the bloodstream through gaps between cells in the digestive system.  This interference alerts the immune system and causes an inflammatory response.  If obesity-related inflammation is caused by interference, researchers said cocoa might help improve gut barrier function.

Cocoa is commonly consumed in chocolate, and it has low-calorie content, low-fat content and high-fiber content.

"Most obesity researchers tend to steer clear of chocolate because it is high in fat, high in sugar and is usually considered an indulgence," Lambert said. "However, cocoa powder is low in fat and low in sugar. We looked at cocoa because it contains a lot of polyphenolic compounds, so it is analogous to things like green tea and wine, which researchers have been studying for some of their health benefits."

Researchers said additional studies are needed to see if the latest findings can be replicated in human trials and to understand why cocoa powder is effective in treating inflammation.

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