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Everyone loves a good daily dose of chocolate. Chocolate boosts our mood, satisfies our palate and is probably one of the most popular treats on the planet. In This Is Your Brain on Chocolate we discussed study findings that showed that eating chocolate weekly could boost cognitive function. A new study now suggests that eating dark chocolate as part of your exercise performance diet may help to improve endurance. Win-win!
Cocoa boosts healthAmericans love to indulge, sometimes enjoying too many treats too often that are high in unhealthy fat, added sugars and sodium. Finding a healthier treat that tastes good, satisfies a sweet tooth, and provides a health benefit is a slam dunk. Previous studies have looked at chocolate’s impact on the heart and the brain. Chocolate contains** cocoa flavonols** which have been shown to have positive health benefits. The key seems to lie in the fact that these cocoa byproducts are largely indigestible. When gut microbes break down cocoa, producing flavonol-containing metabolites, they largely resist further digestion and enter the bloodstream. In the case of heart risk, these metabolites reduce inflammation. Another bonus is that after the body digests dark chocolate, colonies of good bacteria,** lactobacillus**, increase in number, while less desirable microbes,** staphylococcus**, reduce in number.
How chocolate boosts exercise enduranceCocoa contains** epicatechins**, which are plant nutrients that have the ability to instigate the release of nitric oxide by cells that line blood vessels. Nitric oxide causes vasodilatation or further opening of blood vessels, which helps to improve blood flow in both veins and arteries. This translates into improved cardiac function. Nitric oxide also primes muscle cells to utilize more circulating blood sugar, which boosts energy. That in turn helps more oxygen utilization by cells.
Athletes can profoundly benefit from the boost provided by nitric oxide release. It’s no secret that in the world of athletic performance nutrition, there are supplements that claim to enhance nitric oxide production, and beetroot juice is also popular because it contains nitrates. Some athletes believe in the power of the supplements and beetroot juice to boost and enhance endurance, though the research is not clear.
Small study of cyclists “on” chocolate
Eight recreational cyclists had baseline testing in a lab to determine fitness levels and oxygen uptake during moderate level efforts and fast sprints on stationary bicycles. Then, half the group added a small serving of dark chocolate (Dove brand) to their daily diets, by replacing one standard dessert with a specific serving of the dark chocolate (about 1.4 ounces). The control group ate white chocolate which does not have significant levels of epicatechins. The first round of the chocolate project lasted two weeks. Lab tests were repeated and then the groups switched their chocolate consumption and the study was continued for another two weeks. At the end of the second round, lab tests were repeated.
All the cyclists showed improved performance after the two weeks of consuming the dark chocolate, versus the baseline and white chocolate consumption results. Specifically, there was reduced oxygen consumption after the two weeks of consuming dark chocolate and more distance was covered during the sprints, showing anaerobic capacity was enhanced. Nitric oxide levels were not measured but the researchers did conclude that the link between enhanced performance and dark chocolate was clear.
Chocolate does a body good—and training better
Eat a treat and get a boost to your exercise effort? It doesn’t get better than that! It is important to point out that the ideal dosage of chocolate for exercise benefits is not clear and eating too much chocolate for health benefits is not a good idea for your weight or waistline. Epicatechin levels can also vary between chocolate bars. Still, most experts agree that a small dose of very dark chocolate daily may clearly provide health benefits and is a preferable dessert compared to the candy and processed bake goods we typically choose. Just remember to select very dark chocolate, avoid those with significant amounts of added sugars, and monitor portion size and calories per serving.
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal,_ is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families,__ her _website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.