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Achieving a fit, healthier body requires exercise in the gym or wherever you train and it also means exercising some nutritional discipline. When it comes to the latter, there are certain foods that seem to be prominent on the “Foods to Avoid” list of serious athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Chocolate candies and foods, due to their sugar, calorie and fat contents, typically found within the top three items on those lists. This has led to a disconnect between chocolate  and potential training benefits based on concerns surrounding the consumption of calorie laden chocolate and how it will impact our weight.

Chocolate & Weight Management

However, over the past few years medical research has forced us to look beyond the weight management issues with chocolate to its potential regarding mental stimulation and mood elevating effects, as well as potential impact on nitric oxide (NO) levels and general cardiovascular health. This article explores the unique components of chocolate, which originates from the cacao (pronounced cah-cow) seed, and talk about how to gain the training and lifestyle benefits of cacao while still maintaining your goals for a healthy and fit body.

Cacao vs Chocolate & Fitness

Cacao is a small tree (also called the cocoa tree) - the cacao fruit or pods bear seeds (or beans) that are rich in nutrients and fat. Each pod is opened by machete or stick whereupon the seed is removed and used to make cocoa paste and then powder (with powder having much of the fat removed from the paste). These ingredients are then blended with milk, sugar, and other ingredients for baking or cooking resulting in the chocolate products that are considered sinful indulgences. However, looking more closely at the chocolate seed, we find that it is also loaded with unique nutrients that can have a significant impact on fitness, performance, and cardio-vascular health. Thus to gain the most benefit from cacao, you need to indulge yourself with products that are as close to the natural plant source as possible. Said differently, as you get further and further from the natural cacao state, more towards the sugary, higher fat, calorie laden milk chocolate products, the fitness and performance benefits of cocoa are reduced.

Benefits of Cacao

The benefits of cacao components also extend to circulation and general cardiovascular health. Most of the benefits are linked to the presence of flavonoids, a specific type of polyphenolic molecules. Cacao flavonoids provide benefits to the cardiovascular system in several ways, including maintenance of a desirable blood pressure. In addition, cacao flavonoids as part of cocoa products have been shown to increase NO levels, improving mitochondria and muscle function, while also reducing blood platelet stickiness. Both of these actions allow blood to flow more freely which is certainly important during exercise and recovery.

Chocolate as a Sports Supplement?

NO is a key regulator of blood flow and works by increasing the dilation of arteries. This signalling factor is derived from the amino acid arginine (also rich in cacao) and is recognized as one of the key reasons for the positive benefit on blood pressure. Right now, NO is one of the hottest areas of sports nutrition and there are literally dozens of top selling products in supplement stores that are marketed to increase NO. Cacao is also packed with anti-oxidant firepower which is critical for people who burn more calories and thus produce more free radicals in their bodies. The anti-oxidant strength of a food can be measured by its ORAC value. ORAC = Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.  According to the credible website oracvalues.com, cacao-derived cocoa powder is among the highest ORAC ranked foods.

Chocolate, Well Cacao to be Exact is a Fit Food

So there you have it. Chocolate, performance, and fitness can co-exist. When choosing chocolate, look for darker, lower fat and lower sugar varieties by reading the label. Also, you can try a cacao supplement that doesn’t contain the fat and sugar that chocolate candy will. So, perhaps it’s time to revisit the “Foods to Avoid” list to see if you can give chocolate, and more specifically cacao, a second chance.

Hurst WJ, Tarka SM Jr, Powis TG, Valdez F Jr, Hester TR. Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization. 2002 Jul 18:289-90
Conti R, Flammer AJ, Hollenberg NK, Lusher TF, Cocao and cardiovascular health. Circulation 119:1433-1441, 2009
Taub PR et al. Alterations in skeletal muscle indicators of mitochondrial structure and biogenesis in patients with type 2 diabetes and heart failure: effects of epicatechin rich cocoa. Clin Transl Sci. 2012 Feb 5: 43-47
Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N. Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2007 Jul 4; 298:49-60

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