Benjamin A. Tipton, M.S., SCCC
Cocoa and its derivative chocolate have been used for thousands of years by the cultures of Central America. Cocoa was such a fixture in the Aztec society that they used the beans as currency. Primarily, cocoa was brewed into a bitter drink until the beans were exported to Europe by the Spaniards. Europeans sweetened chocolate and later made it into bars during the industrial revolution. Today, dark chocolate, defined as having 60% cocoa content or greater, has received a lot of attention as a possible health food and even a “super-food” because of its antioxidant content, along with the numerous health and well-being benefits that dark chocolate consumption has demonstrated. It is important to note here that milk and white chocolate do not have the same health effects as dark chocolate due to a significantly lower concentration of cocoa in the recipe and thus lower amounts of the cocoa bean’s active ingredients.
Recent research on dark chocolate has shown numerous health benefits such as powerful antioxidant effects, lower blood pressure, decreased LDL (“bad cholesterol”) oxidation and total cholesterol, improved cognitive function in the elderly, and improved mood. Furthermore, dark chocolate has been shown to enhance exercise performance by improving blood glucose maintenance, increasing plasma free fatty acids, enhancing endothelial function, and attenuating blood pressure increases during exercise. These benefits make dark chocolate an excellent food to add to the diet whether a person is active or not.
Because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and oxidative stress has been shown to initiate cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants, which reduce oxidative stress, have emerged as a hot topic in the field of public health. Chocolate contains the powerful class of antioxidants known as flavanols; in a highly active form that work by inhibiting the oxidation of free radicals. Research on dark chocolate consumption before exercise has shown decreased blood markers of oxidative stress versus chocolate-free controls, supporting the antioxidant claims made about dark chocolate. Other research has shown that dark chocolate increased endothelial function which helps redirect needed blood flow to working muscles during exercise, possibly enhancing recovery and performance. This is most likely the mechanism by which dark chocolate reduces blood pressure in resting conditions and limits the increase of blood pressure during exercise. Research has also shown improved blood lipid levels and reduced oxidation of LDL (“bad cholesterol”) which leads to cardiovascular disease. Studies show that subjects who consumed dark chocolate one to two hours before exercise had increased pre-exercise insulin levels, which lead to better maintenance of blood glucose during exercise. This finding is supported by increased plasma free fatty acids in the plasma, which can be broken down for energy during exercise. Thus, eating dark chocolate may improve one’s cardiovascular health as well as be beneficial to athletes and exercising populations.
The benefits of dark chocolate on cardiovascular health are numerous and well documented. Dark chocolate richly contains antioxidants, believed to protect heart health as well as protect against numerous other disease conditions, such as endothelial function. Furthermore, it has been shown that dark chocolate improves endothelial function. Dark chocolate is a nutritionally dense, mood enhancing, naturally occurring food that can provide an easy way for athletes to get some extra calories while providing several different mechanisms by which performance can be improved. It should no longer be considered a guilty pleasure but can be incorporated into a healthy diet by eating one to two ounces a day by both the active and sedentary individual.
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