When we think of foods that improve athletic performance, chocolate probably isn’t the first option that comes to mind.
You might have heard before that certain molecules found in chocolate, known as flavanols, have been associated with health benefits to the heart and the brain. Epicatechin, in particular, seems to have a wide range of effects throughout the body.
But some emerging evidence suggests that chocolate may also aid in exercise performance – weird as it may sound.
Cocoa Improves Aerobic Performance
A few years ago, researchers became interested in how compounds in chocolate might influence aerobic metabolism.
To test this, they randomly divided mice into four different conditions:
2. Water + exercise
3. Epicatechin-infused water
4. Epicatechin-infused water + exercise
Groups 2 and 4 were put on a 15-day exercise program, running on a treadmill. The other groups just chilled and presumably did typical mouse things for the ensuing period.
At the end of the study, the rodents’ hind legs were biopsied. The mice that were given epicatechin developed more capillaries in the leg muscles, which would enable their muscles to get more blood flow.
Additionally, the muscle cells were generating more mitochondria. This results in greater energy production and better resistance to fatigue.
The researchers then made all of the rodents to run on a treadmill to exhaustion.
Sure enough, the mice drinking plain water got tired faster. In fact, the mice that had been training on the treadmill without cocoa flavanols performed about the same on the treadmill test as the mice that were given the flavanols and didn’t even exercise! But the fittest rodents were in the group that both exercised and consumed epicatechins. This group ran approximately 50% further than the animals that did not consume the flavanols.
Cocoa improves blood flow
Epicatechins from chocolate are also known to increase the bioavailability of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels and improves blood flow to skeletal muscles. This should allow athletes to train longer and more intensely without fatiguing.
In another study, researchers took nine amateur cyclists and divided them into two different groups. One group added 40 grams of dark chocolate to their diet; the other added 40 grams of white chocolate in their diet as a control.
When the cyclists consumed dark chocolate, they were able to ride one-tenth of a mile further – compared to the white chocolate. These performance effects are not as spectacular as with the mice in the previous study, but still pretty impressive for such a small lifestyle change.
1. The type of chocolate matters
Flavanols are most highly concentrated in dark chocolate – the darker, the better. Epicatechin is most abundant in cocoa powder and unsweetened baking chips. Dark chocolate (70%+) has about half as much, but it’s still a good source and is a lot tastier. White chocolate contains little to none and isn’t associated with performance improvements.
2. How much chocolate do you need?
The effective dose is pretty small. In the mouse study, the rodents were given 1 milligram of epicatechin per kilogram of body mass. This translates to roughly five grams of dark chocolate when scaled up to humans. The bicyclists in the other study ate 40 grams of Dove dark chocolate (about five pieces).
3. This is not a substitute for actually working out!
Epicatechin is being investigated as a potential exercise mimetic (i.e., it mimics the effects of exercise). But adding in the stimulus of exercise dramatically increases the health and performance benefits. Alas, just eating chocolate and sitting on the couch is still not a viable strategy for physical fitness.
This is how I get my dose: two scoops in my morning coffee. Give it a try and see if it works for you!
To learn more, and to read the full length article, please visit the Dan’s Plan blog.
Main Photo Credit: digieye/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: librakv/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: iravgustin/shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: Jiri Hera/shutterstock.com
Ginny Robards is a biology student and researcher with an avid interest in personal health and digital therapeutics. She works as a content director for humanOS, a health technology company that aims to help people maintain an effective daily health practice and to live more naturally in the modern world. To find out more about that, you can visit www.dansplan.com, or interact with them on Twitter at dansplanhealth.