Dan’s Plan Chocolate Cacao

Can Chocolate Help You Get Fit?

Dan's Plan Chocolate Cacao

When you think of foods that improve athletic performance, chocolate probably isn’t the first option that comes to mind.

We’ve known for a while that certain molecules found in chocolate, known as flavonols, are associated with health benefits to the heart and the brain. Epicatechin, in particular, has exhibited widespread effects throughout the body.

But some emerging evidence suggests that chocolate may also aid in exercise performance – weird as it may sound.

Here’s what the research says so far, and why it seems to work.

 

Effects of Cocoa on Aerobic Metabolism

A few years ago, researchers became interested in how compounds in chocolate might influence aerobic performance.

To test this, they randomized mice into four different conditions:

  1. Water
  2. Water + exercise
  3. Epicatechin-infused water
  4. Epicatechin-infused water + exercise

Groups 2 and 4 were put on a fifteen-day exercise program via treadmill. The other mice chilled and presumably did typical mouse things for the ensuing period.

The researchers performed biopsies of their hind legs. They found that the mice that were given epicatechin developed more capillaries in the leg muscles, which would enable their muscles to get more blood flow.noun_76978

Additionally, the muscle cells appeared to be generating more mitochondria. More mitochondria result in greater energy production and better resistance to fatigue by skeletal muscle. Both of these factors would be expected to improve aerobic metabolism in the muscles. So the researchers put this to the test, by forcing all of the rodents to run on a treadmill to exhaustion.

Sure enough, the control mice drinking plain water became fatigued more rapidly than their counterparts that were assigned epicatechins. In fact, the mice that had been drinking water and training on the treadmill did about the same on the treadmill test as the mice that were given the cocoa polyphenols but didn’t work out!

Overall, though, 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 flavonols.

Effects of Cocoa on Circulation

Improvement in mitochondria and capillarization isn’t the whole story, though. Epicatechins from chocolate are also known to increase the bioavailability of nitric oxide. This effect is also a hallmark of nitrate-rich beetroot juice, which is a popular ergogenic.

Given that most people would find chocolate to be a hell of a lot more palatable than beetroot, researchers became curious about whether supplementing with chocolate could convey similar performance benefits.noun_13597

They 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 (devoid of epicatechin) in their diet as a control. After two weeks of this regimen, the cyclists performed a series of exercise tests. Then the cyclists switched chocolate types and repeated the experiment. This way, every participant was tested with both treatments.

The researchers found that when the cyclists consumed dark chocolate, they consumed significantly less oxygen when they were riding – and were able to ride one-tenth of a mile further – compared to when they were eating the white chocolate. The performance effects were not quite as pronounced as with the mice in the earlier study, but still impressive for such a small lifestyle change.

The researchers attributed the finding to increases in nitric oxide and nitrate levels. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels and improves blood flow to skeletal muscles. This reduces the rate of oxygen use and should allow athletes to train longer and more intensely without fatiguing. This is indeed what the investigators found when they put the cyclists to the test.

 

Practical Application

First of all, it appears that the type of chocolate that you choose makes a big difference. The relevant polyphenols like epicatechin are most concentrated in dark chocolate – the darker, the better.

Epicatechins are most rich in cocoa powder and unsweetened baking chips. Dark chocolate (70%+) has about half as much, but is a lot less bitter and might be a little easier for people to eat. White chocolate contains little to none, which is likely why it has not been associated with performance improvements.noun_67342

Also, it’s important to address how much chocolate you really need. The appropriate dose, in the context of exercise performance, is modest. 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 cyclists in the other study ate 40 grams of Dove dark chocolate (about five pieces). 

Finally, the research does suggest that plant compounds like epicatechin can provoke beneficial physiological responses in sedentary individuals. In fact, epicatechin is being investigated as a potential exercise mimetic (i.e., it mimics the effects of exercise). But the stimulus of exercise appears to dramatically increase the health and performance benefits. Alas, just eating chocolate and sitting on the couch is still not the optimal strategy for fitness.

Overall, it appears that modest amounts of dark chocolate moderately improve exercise performance. The ideal dose, and the extent to which the animal research applies to humans, is not entirely clear. But given that it’s delicious, it seems like one of those rare occurrences where something that seems bad is actually good for you.

Here is how I get my dose each morning: 2 scoops in my morning coffee!

Dan's Plan Cacao

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Nogueira L, Ramirez-Sanchez I, Perkins GA, Murphy A, Taub PR, Ceballos G, Villarreal FJ, Hogan MC, Malek MH. Epicatechin enhances fatigue resistance and oxidative capacity in mouse muscle. 2011. J Physiol 589(Pt 18):4615-31.

Miller KB, Hurst WJ, Flannigan N, Ou B, Lee CY, Smith N, Stuart DA. Survey of commercially available chocolate- and cocoa-containing products in the United States. 2. Comparison of flavan-3-ol content with nonfat cocoa solids, total polyphenols, and percent cacao. 2009. J Agric Food Chem 57(19):9169-80.

Rishikesh Kankesh Patel, James Brouner, Owen Spendiff. Dark chocolate supplementation reduces the oxygen cost of moderate-intensity cycling. 2015. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 12:47.



  • Viola Toniolo

    Ethically sourced chocolate isn’t cheap! It’s important to stress the importance of obtaining fair trade chocolate produced without child labor. Otherwise great article.

    • danpardi

      Really important comment, @violatoniolo:disqus! I’ll change that now. Thank you!

  • Alex McMahon

    What funny timing for the past week or two I’ve been tossing some unsweetened cocoa powder in my coffee before my morning workouts because I enjoy the taste, little did I know until reading this… great write up!

    • danpardi

      Thanks, Alex. Ginny did a nice job with the article. Cacao in coffee and the occassional protein shake is how I get my daily dose.

  • Reymondo Leon

    Thanks for sharing this article. Do you see any benefit in combining it with coffee, or is coffee just your drink of preference.
    In an attempt to do myself some good, I make a concoction that includes powdered super greens, powdered matcha (green tea), cocoa powder, rice milk, psyllium fiber, Met-RX and a little stevia to sweeten. It doesn’t look the best, but the cocoa definitely makes it palatable, and even a little enjoyable.

    • danpardi

      Hi @reymondoleon:disqus, I do see benefit with combining cacao and coffee. In fact, that’s how I do it. Both independently extend time to exhaustion and via different mechanisms. My favorite combo pre exercise is a mocha with bicarbonate.

      • Reymondo Leon

        Gracias

      • Is the bicarbonate to alkalize it?

        • Virginia Robards

          Dan can probably explain it better than me, but I don’t necessarily think he is using it in a way that directly relates to the cacao. He is probably taking the NaHCO3 for resistance against fatigue, associated with changes in acid-base balance in the body while exercising. There’s some evidence of performance benefits there.

        • danpardi

          Hi @cassandraibarra:disqus, bicarbonate loading before exercise does buffer blood acidity cause by intense exercise. It prolongs time to exhaustion and can help you perform at peak capacity for longer. Using it produces a very noticeable effect for me. Here’s a link to more info: http://suppversity.blogspot.com/2013/10/sodium-bicarbonate-for-strength.html

  • Corey Novotny

    Do you see potential negative in long term consumption (impaired mineral/nutrient absorption) or advise a daily upper limit with the phytate content or tannins (that we aim to reduce in grains and legumes via preparation) in cocoa powder?

    • danpardi

      Hi @coreynovotny:disqus, unless an individuals is really sensitive to compounds in cacao, the epidemiological research that I have seen in high cacao consumers seems universally positive for myriad health benefits (cardiovascular health, brain health, etc).

      • Corey Novotny

        Thank you very much for the reply Dan. I was interested as Weston A. Price had identified its Phytic Acid content at 1.7 g/100grams of cocoa powder, one of the highest levels of the listed foods. Considering attention is placed on removing or reducing the levels of these compounds in other foods, I was wondering if there was concern here, since these compounds have been shown to assist in the development of nutrient deficiency over time. From what I can see Weston A Price does not recommend cocoa due to its theobromine and caffeine content. Like you I have seen mostly positive correlations with the consumption of cocoa powder and seen it discussed only positively by people like Chris Kresser, Paul Jaminet, and Stephan Guyenet (with Dan’s Plan and wholehealthsource) discuss the Kuna and their cocoa drinks, which they seem to consume in rather large quantities. Even in quantities of 50g/day of cocoa powder. Again thank you for your response and keep us updated if any further research on the subject arises. Thank you for supplying us all with great information.

        • danpardi

          I really appreciate the note, @coreynovotny:disqus. I have not see reports of nutrient deficiencies from cocoa consumption but if you do see any please link to them here! Also, we are publishing more interesting information on cocao tomorrow so check back.

    • Virginia Robards

      Hi Corey. I don’t think anyone can give exact numbers, but I would honestly not be super worried about that.

      First of all, the so-called anti-nutrients are not uniformly bad. They can bind to good stuff, like minerals in food. But they can also potentially bind to bad stuff, which may be why moderate intake of phytates has some positive associations with respect to certain cancers, and even with other aspects of health like bone density.

      Furthermore, phytate may add even when it subtracts. Recent research suggests that gut bacteria actually produce enzymes that can break down phytate – releasing nutrients like phosphate and inositol that we need. Still a lot we need to learn, but I think it is evident that the story on phytates and other similar compounds is complicated.
      http://news.ifr.ac.uk/2014/02/gut-bacteria-communication/

      Finally, I don’t have precise figures handy, but the amounts of phytic acid in the chocolate that you are consuming may not be quite so high after processing. When chocolate is made, the beans are fermented AND roasted – which would be expected to limit the activity of phytate compared to raw cacao.

      A general principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. I would not expect reasonable amounts of cocoa-derived foods to create problems like you are describing – especially in the context of a nutrient-dense diet.

      • Corey Novotny

        Thank you Virginia. This was a well conceived and thought out response. I really appreciate it. This was also similar to my findings to this point. I will continue to enjoy cocoa mixed with my sweet potatoes and winter squashes and in my unsweetened hot cocoa.

  • Julie Hogan

    I’m wondering how raw cacao nibs would work in this context. I have the most amazing source from my cousin in Peru (who grows and processes with a community collective … all very ethical and feel-goody) and would be interested in your thoughts on how much, how often, and how effective it is compared to cacao powder, etc.

    • Virginia Robards

      Hi Julie, I think raw cacao nibs would work great for this purpose. As far as I know cacao nibs are basically just smashed cacao beans, so they would be a very rich source of the compounds that we are describing here – at least as much so as cocoa powder. The high concentration of polyphenols is in fact probably responsible for the strong flavor characteristic of cacao nibs.

      How much and how often probably depends on what you are trying to achieve. The cool thing about cacao nibs, versus something like a milk chocolate bar, is that the effective dose would be comparatively small since it’s a “purer” source. The phenolic content in cacao nibs is crazy high and they don’t contain other substances (like dairy) that interfere with absorption.

      • Julie in CA

        Appreciate your thoughtful response. I’m excited to have a reason to use my huge backstock of nibs!

    • Kass Belaire

      A serving (1 ounce) of nibs will have around 1000mg of flavanols. Even a half serving would put you over what the cyclists got. Mind the stimulants! Eat them earlier in the day 🙂

      • Virginia Robards

        Thanks for the guidance Kass. 🙂

        And that’s really what I found compelling about the epicatechin data. You can achieve the described benefits with pretty realistic amounts of cacao or cocoa. A lot of studies on plant-derived compounds are really more like pharmaceutical research.

      • Julie in CA

        Thank you for the dosage! I’m going to start this pre-exercise and see how it goes!

        • Reymondo Leon

          I’ve been trying a pre-workout drink including coffee, cocoa and bi-carb and have noticed definite endurance improvements for both cardio and weights. It’s been great information – hope it goes as well for you.

  • presjo

    What is an appropriate dose of raw cacao powder to get the benefits?
    The author states he gets “two scoops” – how big is a scoop?

  • presjo

    Whats the recommended dosage of raw cacao powder to get performance benefits for sports performance?
    The author mentions he has “2 scoops” – how much is a scoop?

    • Virginia Robards

      Hi @disqus_YaQg6xVsAb:disqus, the recommendation of 2 scoops is somewhat arbitrary. I think these are itty bitty 15g scoops. Not a lot.

      We don’t know a specific appropriate dose yet, but I do think 15-30g of cacao powder is probably pretty good, and it would get you reasonably close to the dose of catechins that was used in these studies.