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Can chocolate boost physical performance?

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Could chocolate be more than an indulgent treat? Personal trainer Andrew Cate reveals some surprising news that it may boost your performance when you exercise.

Does chocolate have health benefits?

Our understanding of the effect that chocolate can have on health is continuing to grow.

Cocoa contains the flavonaol epicatechin, a plant nutrient that has anti-oxidant properties. But to make chocolate, other ingredients are added such as sugar, dairy and fats – and that means more kilojoules. As a general rule- the darker the chocolate the better. Dark chocolate contains 70% or more cocoa, and it is the only type of chocolate that could be described as ‘healthy’. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, but little or no actual cocoa, while milk chocolate is high in sugar and dairy fats, and low in cocoa.

It’s the flavanols in dark chocolate that have been reported to increase the bioavailability and bio-activity of nitric oxide, which may have a positive impact on athletic performance.

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The research

A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined how eating a little dark chocolate affected athletic endurance.

Baseline fitness testing was established during twenty minutes of moderate cycling and an all-out 2 minute sprint. In this randomised crossover trials subjects then ate 40 grams of either dark chocolate or white chocolate every day for 14 days.

What they found was that when dark chocolate was consumed subjects achieved improvements in some markers of fitness during the maximal two minute sprint compared to both baseline measurements and white chocolate consumption.

These markers of improvement included oxygen consumption measured via gas exchange threshold and time trial distance covered. Maximal oxygen consumption also increased after eating dark chocolate compared to baseline testing, however, the level of improvement was only small compared to white chocolate consumption.

This lead the researchers to conclude that eating dark chocolate for 14 days reduced the oxygen cost of moderate intensity exercise, and may help to boost performance in short-duration moderate intensity exercise. While this study is interesting, it's not an excuse to binge on chocolate! Conditions do apply, including the following:
  • Make your chocolate dark - Only dark chocolate with 70% or more cocoa
  • Avoid milk and white chocolate - These are too low in flavanols, and too high in fats and sugars
  • Manage your portions - The study participants consumed 40 grams a day for 14 days. In terms of portion size, that is approximately 4-5 small squares a day
  • Compensate for the extra chocolate - If you are adding kilojoules from chocolate to your training diet, try to snack a little less on something else. For example, subjects in the above mention study were instructed to eat 40 grams of chocolate instead of a snack or dessert with similar kilojoule content, but not to reduce their fruit and vegetable consumption

Source:Patel et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2015) 12:47
DOI 10.1186/s12970-015-0106-7