The Health Benefits of Chocolate
During the holiday season we can find ourselves bombarded with chocolate. It’s at the office, we receive it as gifts, we find it at parties. At a holiday luncheon last week I was presented with a scrumptious dark chocolate terrine after the main course. So what’s the deal with chocolate? Will it slow us down in our running? Should we avoid it? You instinctively know that emptying the chocolate box won’t benefit you or your running performance, but is there any way we can have our chocolate and eat it too? Thankfully, there is.
More often than not, it’s not the chocolate we want to avoid, it’s the sugar and fat that come along with it. The dark chocolate terrine I was presented with probably contained a dark baking chocolate and maybe some cocoa powder but also butter, sugar and maybe cream. I’d be hard pressed to give you reasons why you should be eating butter, sugar or cream, but chocolate has been shown to harbour specific health benefits.
Chocolate is derived from the cocoa bean, which is one of the most concentrated sources of flavonoids (antioxidants), particularly catechin and epicatechin. The health benefits these flavonoids bring include protection from heart disease and anti-inflammatory properties. As runners, we want to include food in our diet that helps to manage inflammation and clearly chocolate has been shown to do just that.
Dark chocolate has substantially higher levels of flavonoids than milk chocolate and milk proteins have been shown to inhibit absorption of flavonoids, so we want to ensure we’re reaching for dark chocolate. That is, 70% cacao or higher. Speaking of cacao… What is the difference between cacao (pronounced Ka-Kow) and cocoa (Koh-Koh)? In short, nothing. Two ways of saying the same thing. The official name of the chocolate tree is Theobroma cacao and while most chocolate experts will refer to the bean as cacao and the powder made from them as cocoa, both are grammatically correct.
You’ll typically see the word cacao used by the natural health food industry, in an attempt to differentiate its raw powder (milled at low temperatures to protect the nutrients and flavour) from the more commonly found overprossessed cocoa powders on the market. Raw cacao/cocoa powder is indeed more nutritious. When the cacao beans are processed with alkali, also known as Dutch processing or Dutching, the flavanoids are substantially reduced. Natural and nonalkalized powders have the highest antioxidant content including the beneficial flavonoids that reduce inflammation. It doesn’t mean that the Dutch processed cocoa is ‘bad’, it just means you will derive greater health benefits from choosing unprocessed cocoa powder, such as Navitas Cacao Powder – my current favourite cocoa powder.*
When deciding what type of chocolate bar or chocolate chips to use as a treat or in your baking, you will want to look for one with a label of 70% cocoa or higher and an ingredient list that contains only cocoa mass or chocolate liquor and cocoa butter along with a natural sweetener (usually cane sugar). You want your chocolate free from milk or milk ingredients, fats other than cocoa butter, lecithin, and artificial flavourings. My chocolate bar of choice lately, which I’ll enjoy a couple of squares of with a cup of tea in the evenings, is Zazubean* – peppermint being my favourite flavour. It contains maca, an adaptogen known to be beneficial in helping our bodies manage the stress of training.
Knowing what type of chocolate to look for is helpful. But what if we find ourselves in a situation over the holidays where everyone is gathered together and sharing dessert (and we know there’s likely nothing ‘healthy’ about what is being consumed)? Did I eat the dark chocolate terrine served to me at my holiday luncheon? Indeed, I did. I truly believe we need to splurge once in a while – literally a couple of times a month though, not everyday. Ideally, you want to eat to fuel a strong running body 90% of the time or more and save 10% for treating yourself. Of course that means knowing what 10% actually looks like, so you don’t go overboard (it’s about 2 meals in one week). It also means treating yourself within reasonable quantities and not gorging twice per week! Lastly, if you can find more healthful versions of your favourite chocolate treats you’ll be better off in the long run.
So… Tis the season to run or eat chocolate? Both of course! Enjoy your winter running and share some delectable foods with friends and family this holiday season. Try some chocolate truffles for a treat (recipe below) – you’ll find you only need a few to satisfy your sweet tooth and you’ll still feel great afterwards. Happy holidays!
Happy running 🙂
Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS
*Please note that I am not sponsered by, nor am I endorsing, the above products – I am simply sharing with you my current favourite namebrands.