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updated 4/1/2011 12:27:11 PM ET 2011-04-01T16:27:11

Those with a sweet tooth might not need to feel so guilty about admitting it. People who eat candy and chocolate tend to have smaller waists, weigh less and have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who don't indulge in these treats, a new study says.

In addition, candy and chocolate consumers had a 14 percent lower risk of elevated blood pressure and a 15 percent decreased risk of having metabolic syndrome — a collection of symptoms that put people at risk for heart disease and stroke.

However, the results do not suggest that eating candy helps you lose pounds, the researchers say. Rather, it may be that candy consumers exercise more to make up for the additional calories they're taking in.

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The results suggest these foods are not associated with overweight or disease when consumed in moderation, said study researcher Carol O'Neil, of Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. Indeed, participants in the study did not eat very much candy, only about 1.3 ounces a day on average.

Other researchers point out that the survey used to assess diet in the study asked participants to remember what they ate the previous day, known as a 24-hour recall. It's possible subjects forgot everything they consumed, or simply omitted that extra candy bar.

"The 24-hour recall only describes what people think they eat or what they would like to ideally eat," said Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

In the end, the findings confirm what nutritionists already knew — eating a small amount of candy won't hurt you.

"It's not that candy doesn't contribute to problems," Tallmadge said. It's that people in the study did not eat enough of it to contribute to problems, she said.

Who eats candy?
O'Neil and her colleagues analyzed diet surveys from more than 15,000 U.S. adults aged 19 or older filled out between 1999 and 2004.

Only about 20 percent of responders said they consumed any candy at all. Candy included chocolate and sugar candy, such as gum drops and peppermints. While that may seem low, O'Neil points out adults likely don't eat as much candy as children. And just because participants did not eat candy on the day they were asked to recall, it doesn't mean they don't eat candy at all, she said.

The average BMI and weight circumference were slightly lower in candy consumers than in nonconsumers. For instance, consumers had an average BMI of 27.7, compared with 28.2 for nonconsumers.

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Candy consumers also had slightly higher calorie intakes and ate more sugar than did nonconsumers.

"The thing to remember is, candy alone does not cause weight," said Heather Mangieri, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Taking in more calories than we expend is really what causes weight gain."

How much junk food should you eat?
Tallmadge recommends that people get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from "extras," including candy, fast foods and sodas.

She notes that in this country, the major contributors to obesity are not candy, but rather foods such as chips, baked goods and sodas and large portion sizes at restaurants.

Eating junk foods in place of nutritious foods not only contributes to obesity, but also undernourishment, she said.

The study was published in the February issue of the journal Nutrition Research. It was funded by the National Confectioners Association and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Pass it on: People who ate about an ounce of candy a day had smaller waists and weighed less than people who didn't eat candy at all, likely because they ate junk food in moderation

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Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.

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