Almost everyone will agree that chocolate tastes delightful and. Yet, despite its somewhat decadent taste, it’s still packed with health benefits. How often does that happen? Most notably, dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, a class of antioxidant compounds. One type of flavonoid called epicatechin is well known for its heart health benefits. Dark chocolate also contains other bioactive, plant compounds such as polyphenols and flavanols, to name a few. All in all, dark chocolate, is a complex blend of chemicals and compounds with a growing list of health benefits.
In terms of heart health, compounds in dark chocolate exert health perks in several ways. For one, these compounds ramp up production of a gas called nitric oxide by the inner walls of arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood away from your heart. Once released, this volatile gas, opens up the blood vessels, thereby enhancing blood flow while, at the same time, lowering blood pressure. That’s a positive for heart health.
Compounds in dark chocolate also have favorable effects on blood lipids. In this case, they work by lowering LDL-cholesterol and raising HDL-cholesterol, the so-called good form of cholesterol. What’s more, due to their antioxidant effect, these chemicals help prevent oxidation of LDL-cholesterol, which damages the walls of the arteries. Researchers now know that such damage is linked with cardiovascular disease.
How much does dark chocolate reduce heart disease risk? A study called the Zutphen Elderly Study that looked at cocoa intake among men, a cocoa-rich diet reduced cardiovascular disease by 50%. Other observational studies show a similar risk reduction or greater. Of course, observational studies don’t show causation but when you consider how the compounds in dark chocolate behave in the human body, that they would be heart healthy isn’t surprising.
Dark Chocolate Before a Workout
Does dark chocolate have benefits for athletes as well? A small study carried out by researchers at Kingston University in England suggests that it does. In this study, researchers asked eight male cyclists to eat roughly 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily after undergoing fitness testing on a stationary bike. Another group ate a similar amount of white chocolate and served as a control group. After a week of eating this amount of chocolate daily for 2 weeks, they repeated the fitness tests.
Encouragingly, the athletes performed better on the fitness tests after consuming the dark chocolate. They were able to cover more distance when pedaling hard for a short period of time and they required less oxygen when they rode at a moderate pace. Dark chocolate seemed to improve performance with sprint-pace cycling as well as moderate-intensity cycling. If you do any type of endurance exercise, eating dark chocolate beforehand could boost your performance. Maybe it’s time to consider dark chocolate as a pre-workout snack.
Choosing the Best Dark Chocolate
Not all chocolate is created equal. You will get little or no benefit from nibbling milk chocolate before a workout since it’s light on flavonoids and other active compounds and contains milk that can potentially inactive any flavonoids that are present. White chocolate lovers are out of luck too. White chocolate is devoid of flavonoids.
So, what are the options? Look for a dark chocolate bar with a high percentage of cocoa solids, at least 70%. Many dark chocolate bars have the percentage listed on the label. Also, look for one that contains as little added sugar as possible. These days, you can find dark chocolate bars sweetened with a natural sweetener like Stevia. If not, choose one that has no more than 5 grams of sugar.
You can get similar benefits from unsweetened cocoa powder but choose carefully. Some cocoa powder is processed in a way that removes most of the epicatechins and other flavonoids in dark chocolate. Make sure the brand you choose doesn’t say “Dutch processed” or “processed with alkali.” If it does, you’re not getting significant health benefits.
Even though dark chocolate has health benefits, don’t overdo it. You don’t need a large quantity to get the “good stuff” that chocolate offers. Two small squares of dark chocolate with a high cocoa content are sufficient. Some studies even show that chocolate suppresses appetite and helps prevent overeating. Again, dark chocolate rules. One study showed that dark chocolate suppressed appetite more than milk chocolate and that dark chocolate reduces the desire to eat something sweet for hours afterward.
So, how about a nibble of dark chocolate when you have your next sugar craving? Interestingly, you might get the same benefit by simply smelling dark chocolate. One study showed that the aroma of dark chocolate alone, suppressed appetite, partially due to its effect on the appetite hormone ghrelin.
Dark Chocolate May Reduce Stress
Dark chocolate has a variety of health benefits, assuming you choose a version with a high cocoa content. Plus, it may even help your performance during endurance exercise. Eating dark chocolate is satisfying because it feels like an indulgence, so you feel like you’ve done something nice for yourself. Some studies even show that eating dark chocolate reduces stress. In a study, medical students that consumed around 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily for 14 days felt less stressed out and had a lower output of stress hormones, despite being in a demanding environment.
The Bottom Line
If you enjoy dark chocolate, go ahead and indulge. The next time you run, do aerobic exercise, or a HIIT routine, eat two squares and see how it goes. It may even help your exercise performance. Plus, it’s a small indulgence that can help you avoid eating something that’s higher in sugar. Enjoy!
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