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Dark chocolate may improve performance in fitness training.

Hundreds of studies have shown that chocolate—or at least its base ingredient, cacao—might work for you, not against, when it comes to achieving a fitter, healthier body. Its beneficial effects are present due to the fact that dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants that promote heart health and may prevent many cardiovascular-related conditions.

Why you need chocolate

A single ounce of dark chocolate contains literally dozens of nutrients and disease fighters. Research shows that as part of a balanced, low-fat eating plan, a regular dose of cocoa powder can raise good HDL cholesterol and lower total blood cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of clogged arteries that choke off the blood supply to your heart.

Chocolate also helps reduce inflammation in blood vessels, keeping them elastic and capable of fully dilating for optimum blood flow to your heart and other working muscles.

The chemistry of chocolate

The cacao fruit’s pods contain seeds or ‘beans’ that are rich in nutrients and fat. The seeds, when removed, can be ground into cocoa paste. It becomes cocoa powder once the fatty cocoa butter is removed.

Chocolate is graded into dark, milk and white according to how much raw cocoa it contains. The higher the percentage of raw cocoa, the greater the antioxidant activity, so look for the darkest chocolate possible with at least 70 per cent cocoa for maximum antioxidants and minimum added sugar.

Cocoa powder on its own has a very acrid taste but it is still packed with remarkable nutrients. One of these components is theobromine, a molecule similar to caffeine responsible for mild mental stimulatory properties. On the other side, cacao also contains the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical your nerves produce. It has a number of functions in the body, including helping to move food through your intestines, constricting blood vessels and influencing your mood. Another important messenger molecule in cacao is anandamide, called the ‘bliss’ molecule for its ability to promote relaxation. Anandamide is also thought to be partly responsible for the intense enjoyment experienced while eating chocolate.

Cocoa powder may help your heart as well. Long considered an aphrodisiac, cocoa beans contain phenylethamine, a ‘feel-good’ chemical that triggers the release of opiate-like endorphins in the brain. Once the endorphins are released, they spike the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

The counterbalancing outcome of these of nutrients is a relaxed energy sometimes referred to as the cacao ‘buzz.’ Researchers have been able to show a clear mood improvement in research studies wherein participants consumed a chocolate product.

Chocolate as a performance enhancer

When it comes to pre-workout fuel, chocolate is probably the last thing that we would think of. But according to a new study of sports nutrition, a little dark chocolate may be exactly what you need before a training session to improve your athletic endurance.

Beetroot juice is popular among elite athletes as a tool for enhancing performance, due to its high nitrate content. The nitrates in beetroot juice are converted to nitric oxide in the body. Without sufficient nitric oxide, we can feel fatigued and worn down. It has the ability to expand blood vessels for better blood flow, which means more oxygen can reach the brain, heart, and other important organs.

Postgraduate research student Rishikesh Kankesh Patel, from Kingston University in London, wanted to know whether dark chocolate could provide similar benefits to beetroot. He invited nine amateur cyclists to participate in a study. The cyclists were put into two groups, and they had to integrate 1.5 ounces of chocolate into their diet for the following two weeks. One group consumed a dark chocolate that was rich in flavonols, and the other group had white chocolate. Both groups underwent a series of cycling exercise tests. After a seven-day interval, the groups then switched chocolate types and the two-week trial and subsequent exercise tests were repeated.

The results clearly showed that after eating dark chocolate, the cyclists used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace. This means that––just like beetroot juice––dark chocolate stimulates the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels to release nitric oxide. Therefore eating dark chocolate you can just boost your body’s own production of nitric oxide, and enjoy your boosted performance while you are at it.