Dark Chocolate and Running: A Match Made in Heaven?
The health benefits of the moderate consumption of good quality, dark chocolate is old news to many. Health- and sports magazines have been spreading the good news for years now, and chocolate lovers everywhere have been embracing it with gusto. Some (or many?) perhaps even a bit too eagerly. But what does this mean to the running community? Are some of these proclaimed health benefits something that we want or need in terms of better running performance? Is dark chocolate and running a match made in heaven? Let’s find out.
What kind of chocolate boasts health benefits?
First and foremost, let’s just remind ourselves of what kind of chocolate boasts these health benefits. And nope, that sickly sweet, caramel-covered milk chocolate on a bed of wafers certainly doesn’t cut it. Most of the health benefits associated with dark chocolate can be traced back to the antioxidants found in good old cocoa beans. And therefore the higher the cocoa content of your dark chocolate of choice, the better. If, however, you’re not quite ready for the intensity of an 85 or 90 percent cocoa bar, make sure to get one with a cocoa content of at least 70%. Sorry to say that milk chocolate does not deliver the health benefits of dark chocolate.
What else is important in selecting the best dark chocolate bar?
And what else should you be looking for in the ideal dark chocolate bar? It’s important to pay close attention to the ingredient list. Same as with any other food product, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. Also make sure of the following:
- That cocoa (in one of several forms) or cocoa liquor is listed as the first (and therefore most abundant) ingredient of your bar.
- The less sugar, the better. Sugar is added to many dark chocolate bars in order to cut through the bitterness of the cocoa. Therefore make sure that sugar (if added) is listed as close as possible to the end of the ingredient list. Alternatively, choose a brand that uses natural sweetening options, such as stevia or coconut nectar, instead of refined sugar.
- Other ingredients, like soy lecithin (an emulsifier) and milk fat (the bar should have no other milk products!) are not essential to the making of a dark chocolate bar, but commonly used in many commercial brands. Use your own discretion in this regard.
- Lastly, flavorings in the form of spices, extracts and oils give some dark chocolate bars a distinct taste. Flavored bars are fine, but remember to opt for organic in order to avoid the consumption of artificial flavorings.
The golden rule to keep in mind is therefore that minimally processed, organic dark chocolate with a short ingredient list is generally your best bet.
What are the health benefits associated with good quality dark chocolate?
And what exactly are the health benefits associated with the moderate consumption of good quality dark chocolate? The list is quite impressive and, in short, includes the following:
- It is a potent source of antioxidants, the latter which provide protection against free radicals
- Dark chocolate consumption may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, although evidence in this regard is contradicting
- It is known to improve a number of risk factors associated with disease, e.g. lowering the susceptibility of LDL (also referred to as “bad cholesterol”) to oxidative damage, increasing HDL (so-called “good cholesterol”) levels and improving insulin sensitivity
- Dark chocolate consumption may improve blood flow to the skin and protect the skin against sun damage
- It may improve brain function by improving blood flow to the brain. Dark chocolate also contains the stimulant caffeine, which may improve brain function over the short term
Moderation is key
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Does this mean that, if a little dark chocolate is good for you, then a lot must be better? Unfortunately not. Remember that even good quality, organic dark chocolate packs a calorie punch. One 100 g slab of 85% cocoa, for example, contains approximately 600 calories, of which 450 come from fat. So best indulge in moderation. One or two squares a day are plenty and remember that the occasional dark chocolate indulgence is best if it forms part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Dark chocolate and running
More good news for athletes specifically is that, in addition to the above-mentioned health benefits of dark chocolate, a recent study has also shown that it may help boost performance. These (slight) performance boosting benefits are believed to be attributed to an antioxidant called epicatechin found in cocoa beans. Milk and white chocolate therefore does not contain epicatechin. This antioxidant is generally associated with cocoa in a more unprocessed state.
Keep in mind, though, that further, detailed research on a larger scale has been recommended in this regard in order to confirm the findings and shed more light on the subject.
So while dark chocolate certainly isn’t a magic bullet that will turn you into an Olympic contender by the end of Summer, it’s good to know that, in addition to stimulating the “feel-good” centers of the brain, it also has a range of proven health benefits. So go on, enjoy a square or two after dinner. You know you want to!