December 19, 1998
Eat sweets, live longer
As visions of chocolate Hanukkah gelt or sugar plums dance in our heads, a spoil-sport conscience usually kicks in to warn: "Thats yummy, but no good. Eat this junk food at your peril."
So we eat itand promptly feel guilty. If its rich chocolate and takes more than one swallow to down, we tend to feel VERY guilty.
Considering how much candy we will see this holiday season, that can add up to quite a heavy helping of self-reproach.
Now for some really sweet news: A pair of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston report that people who eat candy live a little longer than those who dont.
I-Min Lee and Ralph S. Paffenbarger Jr. have studied life span in participants of an ongoing study of Harvard alumni, men who entered as undergraduates between 1916 and 1950. They focused on 7,800 men who as of 1988 had no cancer or heart disease. Through 1993, some 500 of these men died. The researchers then computed risks of early death attributable to aspects of the diet or other factors, such as age, smoking, exercise, alcohol consumption, and weight.
In the Dec. 1926 British Medical Journal, the researchers note that after accounting for potentially confounding factors, "consumption of candy was associated with greater longevity." More than 40 percent of the men claimed to never eat candy. Lee and Paffenbarger now report that when it comes to these sweets, "men who indulged lived almost a year longerup to age 95than did abstainers."
The bad news for those with a demanding sweet tooth: Eating candy just one to three times a month proved preferable to indulging more often. However, even those who ate candy the mostat least three times a weekhad a 16 percent lower risk of dying over the study period than did men eschewing such treats.
Was it chocolate?
The dietary survey asked the men how much candy, if any, they typically consumed. In retrospect, says Lee, they should have asked whether and how much of the candy was chocolateand whether chocolate might have been consumed in other forms, such as ice cream or cake. Its something her team added to a questionnaire administered to surviving members of the study this year.
Why focus on chocolate? Well, certainly its among the most popular candies, as Lee can attest. Dark or light, she told Science News Online, "I never met a chocolate I didnt like." Having spent her childhood in Malaysias humid tropics, she notes that this candy had to be loaded with preservatives to keep from melting. So moving to the temperate United States "was pure heaven," she said. "I could eat real chocolate without all that wax."
An academic reason for her interest is chocolate consumption is that the confection contains polyphenols, which act as antioxidants. These could help diffuse any damage unleashed by oxidative free radicalsreactive molecular fragments that have been linked to a host of degenerative disorders, including heart disease, cancer, emphysema, and asthma. Indeed, researchers at the University of California, Davis have shown that a 1.5-ounce piece of milk chocolate contains the same antioxidant load as a heart-sparing 5-ounce glass of red wine.
However, if chocolate is responsible, there may be yet another explanation: Eating it simply makes us feel good. Two years ago, pharmacologists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego showed that eating chocolate unleashes cannabinoids in the braincompounds similar to those responsible for the euphoria induced by smoking marijuana.
But perhaps the simplest explanation for any life-extending property in candy is psychologicalthat people who occasionally sample these confections know how to reward themselves without falling prey to unhealthy binges.
Lee says that she hopes her provocative new data "stimulate more research in the field so that both laboratory scientists as well as scientists conducting studies in human populations can develop a more coherent picture" of any mechanisms affecting longevity."
Whatever the explanation, the holiday timing of her new findings couldnt be better.
Lee, I-M., and R.S. Paffenbarger, Jr. 1998. Life is sweet: candy consumption and longevity. British Medical Journal 317(Dec. 19-26):9.
Raloff, J. 1996. Chocolate: As hearty as red wine . . . Science News 150 (Oct. 12):235.
_____. 1996. Chocolate . . . but we eat it for pleasure. Science News 150 (Oct. 12):235.
_____. 1996. Prescription-strength chocolate. Science News Online (Oct. 12).
Department of Epidemiology
Harvard School of Public Health
Boston, MA 02115
This week's Food for Thought has been prepared by Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News.
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Copyright 1998 Science Service