Researchers from the University of Granada in Spain have found that chocolate consumption is associated with lower central and total body fat levels in adolescents. Even better for chocolate lovers: these findings were independent of other factors like sex, age, total energy intake, and physical activity levels.

“[These] results were surprising, because chocolate has been traditionally considered as unhealthy food [because of an] abundance of sugar and saturated fat. After the study, [we observed] the many health benefits of some components of chocolate,” says study author Magdalena Cuenca-García, Ph.D. The researchers say that when it comes to diet, the quality of food may matter just as much, if not more, than the number of calories you consume.

Researchers were interested in studying chocolate because of research linking chocolate to an increase in cardiovascular health. In a study published in 2010 in the European Heart Journal, for example, researchers reported that chocolate consumption lowered the risk of heart disease, in part by lowering blood pressure.

Learn About 7 Superfoods That Promote Good Health »

Quality Over Quantity

After surveying nearly 1,500 participants between 12 and 17 years of age, researchers found that a higher level of reported chocolate consumption was associated with lower levels of total and central body fat. Adolescents in the high-consumption group, who ate about 1.5 ounces of chocolate a day, had lower levels of fat than those who ate less, about 0.16 ounces a day. Those who ate 1.5 ounces (about a square and a half of chocolate) also had more energy and were more physically active, the study says.

Measurements of “fatness” were made using body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, and waist circumference.

These findings reinforce the theory that the biological impact of foods cannot be properly measured only in terms of calories. Weight gain is of course influenced by the quantity of calories consumed, but the quality is just as important. It’s the difference between eating a piece of processed, preservative-laced white bread compared to one rich in whole grains and without additives.

“Many other components of the diet are biologically active. There is place for...investigation of the effects of particular foods, not only their caloric content...on risk factors for chronic diseases, including [weight] and obesity,” Cuenca-García says. 

Cook It: A Healthy Chocolate Recipe, With a Dose of Calcium »

The Health Benefits of Chocolate

A chocolate-fueled junk food binge is never healthy, but chocolate can be included in a heart-healthy, balanced diet. 

“Many studies have shown that chocolate consumption in adults is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, mainly due to the catechins, a type of flavonoids,” Cuenca-García says. 

Catechins, antioxidants found in foods like chocolate, tea, and even apples, may promote health due by decreasing inflammation and lowering blood pressure. Chocolate may also influence insulin sensitivity and cortisol production, Cuenca-García says.

One limitation of these findings is that researchers could not compare the results for people who ate milk chocolate versus darker chocolates, which contain a higher concentration of flavonoids.

Until further studies are conducted, only moderate chocolate consumption is recommended, Cuenca-García says. Try the quantity consumed by kids in the study: an ounce and a half or less a day.