Love chocolate? Feel guilty eating it? This may ease your conscience: New evidence suggests that people who indulge on a regular basis are thinner than those who don't.

Researchers in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, presented the results of a new study that turns the assumption that eating chocolate on a regular basis makes people fat on its head.

Chocolate is unique in that about half of the saturated fat it contains is stearic acid, a fatty acid that does not increase blood levels of LDL-cholesterol.

Previous research has shown that chocolate consumption benefits blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, possibly due to the present of antioxidant phytonutrients like catechin, a compound that has potent antioxidant and anti-platelet activities. Chocolate has also shown to improve cholesterol levels. However, because of the calories contained in chocolate, there have been concerns related to its intake.

The researchers, led by Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, theorized that modest, regular consumption of chocolate might be calorie-neutral, meaning that the metabolic effects of eating chocolate on a regular basis might offset the extra calories consumed and lead to a reduction in fat deposition on the body.

Just over 1,000 adult men and women living in San Diego were recruited for the study. Each was asked the question, "How many times a week do you consume chocolate?" The height, weight, and body mass index of each person was recorded at the initial visit.

The results are music to a chocolate lover's ears: Those who ate chocolate more days a week were thinner than those who ate chocolate less often. While the size of the effect was modest, it was considered "significant" - larger than could be explained by chance. The regular consumers of chocolate actually ate more calories and they didn't exercise any more than those who consumed chocolate less often.

The researchers could not identify any behaviors that might explain their findings as a difference in calories consumed versus calories expended. The study does not show that eating chocolate causes you to be thinner. The relationship behind the connection found in this study is still not clear.

Golomb said that the findings seem to add to a body of knowledge that suggests the composition of calories, not just the number of calories consumed, matters when it comes to the effect on a person's weight.

The catechins in chocolate possess antioxidant properties and may have favorable associations with metabolic factors in the body. Chocolate is unique in that about half of the saturated fat it contains is stearic acid, a fatty acid that does not increase blood levels of LDL-cholesterol. 

The study was published online in the Archives of Internal Medicine on March 26, 2012.