The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition has published research that suggests a little dark chocolate may improve performance in fitness training. Beetroot juice is popular among elite athletes, using it as a tool for enhancing their performance due to its high nitrate content. These nitrates in beetroot juice are converted to nitric oxide in the body, causing blood vessels to dilate and in turn reduce oxygen consumption that helps athletes maintain their pace longer.
It has been reported by the Mayo Clinic that chocolate and cocoa may play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease. Cocoa beans contain flavanols, which have antioxidant effects that reduce the cell damage involved in heart disease. Blood pressure can be lowered and vascular function can also be improved. Of course, Mayo Clinic also warns that not all the benefits of chocolate have been confirmed and should be consumed in moderation. The added fats and sugars can lead to weight gain and other health problems.
One of the flavanols in the cocoa bean and dark chocolate is epicatechin. This ingredient increases the production of nitric oxide in the body. Rishikesh Kankesch Patel , a postgraduate research student from Kingston University in London, UK, wanted to know whether dark chocolate could provide similar benefits as beetroot. Nine amateur cyclists participated in a study supervised by sports science field leader Dr. Owen Spendiff and James Brouner, senior lecturer in sports analysis. Each group underwent an initial fitness test to provide a baseline for later comparison, then were put into two groups. Everyone involved swapped one of their daily snacks for 1.5 ounces of chocolate for 2 weeks. Dark chocolate rich in flavanols was consumed by one group, and the other had white chocolate. Two weeks later the cyclists performed a series of cycling exercise tests of moderate exercise and time trials in Kingston’s sports performance laboratory. Their heart rates and oxygen consumption levels were then measured by the researchers.
They all took a break for a week and then switched chocolate types and repeated the 2-week trial and tests. The riders eating dark chocolate used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace and also cycled further in a 2 minute flat out time trial. Both dark chocolate and beetroot juice are known to increase nitric oxide, the major mechanism believed to be behind these results. The hope is to potentially include dark chocolate in the diet of endurance athletes. However, it is unclear whether the boost in performance is short term and taking effect within the same day of consumption, or if it takes longer, which is what the current findings suggest. It is important for endurance athletes to be as efficient as possible and many athletes consume beetroot juice for this very purpose but do not enjoy the flavor. The results show that consumption of dark chocolate has altered the participants’ responses to the activity and therefore could enhance their endurance performance.
It is also noted that commercially available chocolate doesn’t generally publish flavanol content on its labels and it is very difficult to determine which dark chocolate would provide the greatest performance benefit based on the label.
So, even though I prefer and “love” light chocolate, this study has convinced me that I need to switch to “Dark” chocolate……and, alas, only in moderation! But if it might give me more endurance and energy, why not, shouldn’t we all?
–Dr Fredda Branyon