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The surprising benefits of chocolate

Most people tend to feel guilty for eating chocolate but is it really as bad as people make out? Surprisingly there are a lot of benefits to eating chocolate as this timely post explains.

We told you last year that dark chocolate could help boost athletic performance.

But what else is dark chocolate good for? And what about milk chocolate? Is chocolate milk good for us too?

Other benefits may include:

Could be good for the gut

A study from The American Society for Nutrition has discovered a beneficial prebiotic effect of high flavanol chocolate (dark chocolate) consumption. After a period of 4 weeks of consuming a high flavanol cocoa powder, subjects had a significant increase in bifidobacterial and lactobacilli populations, as well as significantly decreased clostridia levels. This was accompanied by significantly decreased C-reactive protein (which correlates to inflammation reduction in the body), which was associated particularly with changes in lactobacilli.

It helps maintain a healthy cardiovascular system

Regular chocolate consumption is also associated with improved markers of cardiovascular health according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Notably, the polyphenols in cacao increase HDL cholesterol, which in turn leads to decreased oxidised LDL cholesterol. Recent research has also found regular chocolate eaters have higher levels of circulating nitric oxide and reduced platelet adhesion, resulting in improved endothelial function.

One study by NCBI even found the particular cacao flavanol epicatechin to be responsible for the rise in nitric oxide, which is essential for vascular health. Bioavailability of nitric oxide is an essential determinate of vascular health as it regulates dilation tone, signals cell growth and inflammatory response and protects blood vessels from clotting

It can help you lose weight

Neuroscientists have reported that a small square of chocolate melted on the tongue 20 minutes before a meal triggers the hormones in the brain that say “I’m full”, cutting the amount of food you subsequently consume. Finishing a meal with the same small trigger could reduce subsequent snacking. Previous studies (which we reported in 2012) have also found those who ate chocolate a few times a week were, on average, slimmer than those who ate it occasionally and even though chocolate is packed full of calories, it contains ingredients that may favour weight loss rather than fat synthesis.

Chocolate is a powerful antioxidant

A study by The Chemistry Central Journal showed that cocoa and dark chocolate contained more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than other fruits they tested, which included blueberries and Acai berries. The journal concluded with – Cacao seeds thus provide nutritive value beyond that derived from their macronutrient composition and appear to meet the popular media’s definition of a “Super Fruit”.

It’s good for new mums and their babies

Tucking into chocolate eggs is good for unborn babies, according to a study by New Scientist.

A study at the University of Helsinki, Finland asked over 300 pregnant women to rate their stress levels and chocolate consumption.

After the babies were born, they looked for an association between the amount of chocolate their mothers had eaten and the babies’ behaviour. Six months after birth, the researchers asked mothers to rate their infants’ behaviour in various categories, including fear, soothability, smiling and laughter.

The babies born to women who had been eating chocolate daily during pregnancy were more active and “positively reactive” – a measure that encompasses traits such as smiling and laughter.

The babies of stressed women who had regularly consumed chocolate showed less fear of new situations than babies of stressed women who abstained.

For more information on health during pregnancy check out weight gain during and post pregnancy.

Chocolate is good for the brain, memory and mood

Flavanols are thought to reduce memory loss in older people and the anti-inflammatory qualities of dark chocolate have been found beneficial in treating brain injuries such as concussion.

Pure cocoa is best, (although it is quite bitter) anything that is 85% cocoa or more will have positive effects. Basically, the darker the chocolate, the better it is for your brain. Unfortunately, milk chocolate hasn’t been proven to be any benefit to the brain.

Psychology today wrote ‘The bottom line here is that eating dark chocolate is good for your memory, blood pressure and your mood. It helps alleviate depression and also acts as an anti-inflammatory, which means that it is good for your brain. And if it is good for your brain…it is good for you.’

Research from The University of Bristol found Cocoa also contains stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason cocoa can improve brain function in the short term.

It may prevent diabetes

Cocoa has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. Dark chocolate in moderation could delay or prevent the onset of diabetes.

Research from the University of Hull, UK in their report Dark chocolate is good for diabetics stated dark chocolate can offer a potential reduction in cardiovascular risk without detrimental risks on weight, insulin resistance or glycaemic control.”

Good for sunburn

The flavonols in dark chocolate (again only dark chocolate) can protect the skin against sun damage, which is good to hear as summer is on it’s way to Europe!

Some research results support the conclusion that eating chocolate may be healthy for your skin and may even protect it from ultraviolet (UV) damage from the sun. According to these data, this can decrease the probability that you will get sunburn. One plausible explanation for this effect may be the fact that high-cocoa chocolate can increase blood circulation to the skin itself. Increased blood flow to the topmost layers of the skin (those within only one millimetre of the surface) has been shown in women who consume high-flavanol chocolate beverages. These added blood vessels can provide the healthy oxygenation your skin needs to help protect itself.

One plausible explanation for this effect may be the fact that high-cocoa chocolate can increase blood circulation to the skin itself. Increased blood flow to the topmost layers of the skin (those within only one millimetre of the surface) has been shown in women who consume high-flavanol chocolate beverages. These added blood vessels can provide the healthy oxygenation your skin needs to help protect itself. Further reading can be found on NCBI.

Of course, sun cream is still better.

Dark chocolate could lower blood pressure and improve blood flow

As briefly mentioned earlier research shows the flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce Nitric Oxide (NO).

One of the functions of NO gas is to send signals to the arteries to relax, which lowers resistance to blood flow and therefore can reduce blood pressure.

This is backed up by several journals including one published by Jama Network who found dark chocolate intake reduced mean systolic BP by −2.9 (1.6) mm Hg (P < .001) and diastolic BP by −1.9 (1.0) mm Hg (P < .001) without changes in body weight, which shows only a small change but still a reduction.

However, as with most things, there is also one study in people with elevated blood pressure that showed no effect.

Chocolate makes you feel better

Surely nobody can argue with this?

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), this chemical encourages your brain to release feel-good endorphins.

We wouldn’t recommend too much sugar and dark chocolate trumps milk chocolate but don’t feel too bad about cracking open a chocolate egg this Easter, especially if it’s dark chocolate.

Postexercise chocolate milk ingestion has been shown to enhance both glycogen resynthesis and subsequent exercise performance.

Chocolate milk boosts performance

There was also research done just last year by The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism assessing a variety of drinks and their impact on healthy trained male cyclists on a 20km time trial. They did 20km then had a drink of whichever category they were put in, had a 4-hour rest then raced again. They were split into 5 groups (dairy milk chocolate, chocolate soy beverage, chocolate hemp beverage, low-fat dairy milk and a sweetened placebo).

Fluid intake across treatments was equalised (2,262 ± 148 ml) by ingesting appropriate quantities of water based on drink intake. The data found that postexercise macronutrient and total energy intake are more important for same-day 20-km cycling time trial performance after glycogen-lowering exercise than protein type or protein-to-carbohydrate ratio. They also concluded that chocolate milk is an effective same-day recovery beverage after glycogen-lowering exercise.

Another similar study Chocolate Milk as a Post-Exercise Recovery Aid published by Human Kinetics, 10 years earlier in 2006 in The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism looked at nine male, endurance-trained cyclists and performed an interval workout followed by 4 hours of recovery and a subsequent endurance trial to exhaustion at 70% VO2max, on three separate days. Immediately following the first exercise bout and 2 hours of recovery, subjects drank isovolumic amounts of chocolate milk, fluid replacement drink (FR), or carbohydrate replacement drink (CR), in a single-blind, randomised design. Carbohydrate content was equivalent to chocolate milk and CR. Time to exhaustion (TTE), average heart rate (HR), a rating of perceived exertion (RPE), and total work (WT) for the endurance exercise were compared between trials. TTE and WT were significantly greater for chocolate milk and FR trials compared to CR trial. The results of this study suggest that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid between two exhausting exercise bouts.


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Hi, I'm Ryan, the Marketing Manager and chief blogger here at Human Kinetics Europe Ltd. As somewhat of a washed-up athlete I've always had a passion for health, fitness and sport science. I now find myself working at the world’s biggest independent publisher of sport, health, dance and fitness resources. This means I get unrestricted access to all the best, most interesting, scientifically-proven writing on sports science. Of course I'm going to share this with you!

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