It’s no secret – I love chocolate! It’s one of the Eat2Run top five “superfoods” and in fact, I’ve written about chocolate before – in this 2014 blogpost I outline the difference between cacao and cocoa, and why we want to reach for dark chocolate. Here today, I want to dive deep into exactly WHY chocolate (dark unprocessed chocolate and raw cacao, that is) is so darn good for us.
Truthfully, I’m probably just writing this to make myself feel better about my daily consumption 20 to 40 grams of 80-85% dark chocolate. Call it looking for a scientific way to rationalize what a small part of me still believes might be over-ingulgance.
Oh, in case you were wondering, 40g of chocolate is half a chocolate bar 😉
1. Chocolate can help you run faster
Haha, okay I can almost see you rolling your eyes right now – but seriously it can! Dark chocolate has actually been found to act as an ergogenic aid. This 2015 study published in the International Journal of the Society of Sports Nutrition found that the flavonoids in chocolate increase the availability of nitric oxide, which enhances performance by reducing how much oxygen is required for the task at hand. The athletes (they were cyclists) who ate 40 grams of dark chocolate daily were able to cover 17% greater distance in the same time than they had 2 weeks earlier (their baseline time achieved with no chocolate in their systems) and 13% greater distance than the athletes who’d eaten white chocolate for 2 weeks.
Interestingly, the researchers used Dove dark chocolate in the study, which is not that dark (the website doesn’t specify a percentage but based on the nutrition info available it was probably about 55-65% dark) and the chocolate is processed with alkali meaning some of the flavonoids have been removed. I can only conclude that truly dark unprocessed chocolate would work that much better, as you’ll then avoid the excess sugar – and less would be required for the same effect.
So there you have it – approximately 20g of 80-85% dark chocolate daily will help you run faster!
2. Chocolate can boost your memory
The flavonoids in dark chocolate promote brain plasticity & cell longevity. They also stimulate blood flow to brain for improved memory, attention span and problem solving.
According to this 2013 study, flavonoids have been found to induce improvements in memory and cognition – and these changes were simultaneous with increases in BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor, a growth factor in the brain that is vital to learning, memory and higher thinking). Magnesium has also been shown to boost BDNF (per this 2015 study and this 2013 study), and luckily chocolate is also a great source of magnesium (30g of 70-85% dark chocolate or 2.5 Tbsp raw cacao powder offers about 65mg magnesium – 21% of the daily recommended intake).
According to this 2016 study of 968 participants, dark chocolate was related to improved cognitive performance, including visual-spatial memory and organization, and working memory. This 2013 review tells us that the flavonoids in dark chocolate appear to preserve cognitive ability and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. And this interesting 2016 study tells us that flavonoid rich chocolate restored working memory performance after sleep deprivation (by improving blood flow to the brain).
3. Chocolate is good for your heart
Dark chocolate has repeatedly been shown to strengthen the cardiovascular system. It’s been documented in many studies to lower blood pressure. For example, in this 2011 study, 30g of dark chocolate daily for just 15 days significantly decreased systolic blood pressure in prehypertension subjects. And this 2017 review of 35 trials found dark chocolate provides a small but statistically significant blood pressure lowering effect in healthy subjects.
Dark chocolate has also been shown to lower risk of cardiovascular disease by significantly reducing blood sugar levels, improving circulation and lowering cholesterol levels. In this 2012 meta-analysis of 42 studies, the researchers found consistent data suggesting dark chocolate helps guard against insulin resistance (long term insulin resistance leads to diabetes). This 2012 study showed that daily dark chocolate consumption proved beneficial in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol in those with metabolic syndrome, thereby preventing heart disease. And this 2009 review tells us dark chocolate has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties due to its flavanol (a class of flavonoids) and procyanidin content and thereby protect against heart disease.
4. Chocolate is good for your mood
Chocolate has been shown to make you happier, to improve your mood and state of mind. In fact, this 1999 study points out that chocolate is arguably the food with the greatest impact on mood. It contains anandamine (nicknamed the “bliss molecule”) and tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin (aka the “happiness molecule”).
Interestingly, anandamine binds to the same brain sites as cannabis (per this 1996 study). However, don’t worry – there’s no increase in cannabinoids circulating in the blood following chocolate consumption, haha. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced naturally by the thyroid gland that produces mild feelings of happiness and a sense of security. High levels of serotonin induces the release of endorphins, a happiness neurotransmitter which make us feel elated. This 2014 systematic review tells us that endorphins are released during continuous exercise, fear, love, music, chocolate eating, laughter and sex.
5. Chocolate may be good for your waistline
Eat chocolate and lose weight! Ha, hey, I had to throw it in here. It’s for real – this 2012 study suggests that greater chocolate is linked with a lower BMI. A total of 1,018 subjects ate chocolate an average of 2 times a week (and exercised an average of 3 times a week). Those who ate more chocolate also appeared to consume more calories and saturated fat overall, yet the greater chocolate consumption frequency was linked with a lower BMI. It should be noted those who ate more chocolate did NOT exercise more, yet the results were still positive. Researches theorized that the same mechanisms in chocolate that lower blood pressure and increase insulin sensitivity may also reduce fat deposition.
6. Chocolate may help boost energy levels
Chocolate is rich in iron. Seriously, it’s a really good source of iron – a 40g serving of 70-85% dark chocolate contains 4.5 mg of iron, which is 50% of the recommended daily intake for men and 26% RDI for women. This 2011 review specifically recommends chocolate as a good source of iron. So for anyone low in iron, hey, chocolate might lend a helping hand. And it just so happens a large percentage of endurance athletes suffer from iron deficiency, a topic I discuss in this blogpost here Overcoming Iron Deficiency.
So there you have it – no need to be afraid of including dark chocolate into your daily dietary habits! It’s good for your performance, your memory, your heart, your mood, your waistline and your energy levels. You’re welcome 🙂
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN