Should You Eat: Chocolate?

chocolateI’ve decided to add a new feature to my blog, the “Should You Eat: XX” blogs!  Here I will choose a particular food, usually one with lots of hype around it, and break it down to see what it really offers in terms of nutrition and sports performance enhancement, and whether or not I think it’s worthwhile to incorporate it into your diet.

First up, chocolate.  Let me preference this blog with a confession:  I love chocolate.  Most days of the week I have a piece or two, and it’s not always the dark “healthy” kind.  I don’t do it for my health so much as for enjoyment, but I do sometimes wonder if all this chocolate is helping or hurting my health and sports performance (physical health that is, there is no doubt it helps my mental health!).

Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, which is a good source of a group of phytochemicals called “flavanols”.  These nutrients have antioxidant properties and are thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, improve blood flow, and lower blood pressure.  There have also been studies that found improvement in memory and cognitive function with an increase in flavanols from cocoa in the diet, possibly from increased blood flow to the brain.  So that’s why you often hear that dark chocolate is good for you.  The difference between dark chocolate and regular milk chocolate is mostly the cocoa content.  Dark chocolate also contains much less milk than milk chocolate and it is generally only dark chocolate that is thought to have health benefits.

The downside is that chocolate is full of calories in the form of fat and sugar.  There have been some studies (on animals mostly) about the addictive properties of sugar and fat combined, meaning you may have a hard time stopping after just 1-2 pieces!  I, however, would like to think that I have a little more mental strength than a rat so I’m not sure how applicable those studies are to humans.  Still, it’s important to consider that to get 200mg of flavanols from dark chocolate (70% cacao) you would need to eat 2 ounces, which would contain about 300 calories**.  That’s no small sum.  Milk chocolate is too low in flavanols to even pretend you are eating a health food, so no luck there, sorry.

The good news is there is another form to try if you want to reap the health benefits of chocolate- cocoa powder.  Because it’s less processed it contains more flavanols than any other form of chocolate.  And because it doesn’t have sugar and milk added to it like chocolate, it doesn’t contain the fat or sugar either.  To get 200mg of flavanols from cocoa powder, all you need is 1 ¾ tablespoons, which will only set you back 20 calories!  Chocolate lovers beware though, cocoa powder is not sweet. In fact, it’s quite bitter and, well, kinda gross tasting.

Wondering if chocolate or cocoa powder can improve your sports performance? It would make sense that increased blood flow could be beneficial.  After all, that’s part of the reason beet juice helps.  A quick search on Pub Med didn’t yield a whole lot of results though.  There was one study that found reduced oxidative-stress markers and increased mobilization of free fatty acids after exercise but no observed effect on exercise performance with regular dark chocolate consumption.   I also found an article referencing a study claiming “eating dark chocolate improves athletic performance just as much as exercise”, which I find hard to believe. Turns out it was a mice study. I didn’t realize mice liked chocolate!  Anyway, looks like we need more studies on athletes and dark chocolate. I’d volunteer for that!  The down side with chocolate and sports performance is potential weight gain.  As I noted above, you’d have to eat 300 calories worth of dark chocolate to get the health benefits.  That’s a pretty big chunk of your daily caloric needs if you are eating, say, about 2200 calories a day.

So, the question is, should you eat chocolate?  Like so many things with food and nutrition, I’m not going to give you a straight yes or no answer! First of all, I’m only talking about dark chocolate here.  There aren’t enough flavanols in milk chocolate to provide any health benefits, so if you really like milk chocolate make sure to have it as an occasional treat, not a daily occurrence, and don’t kid yourself into believing you are eating it for your health.  That being said, I think that there are some great possible health benefits to eating dark chocolate, but these must be weighed with the cost, i.e. lots of calories from fat and sugar.  However, if you don’t like dark chocolate and already eat a healthful diet there is probably no point in starting to add in dark chocolate.  If you are interested in amping up your diet but don’t care for dark chocolate, try incorporating cocoa powder.  Add a tablespoon or two to smoothies, recovery shakes/drinks, or coffee or even top your yogurt or oatmeal with it.  Now, if you do like chocolate then I say go for it!  Not only are there the potential health benefits, but there is also the pleasure factor to consider.  Depriving yourself of something you really enjoy is likely to make you want it more-and to end up eating a whole pan of brownies when you finally let yourself have some.  That will put way more of dent in your diet and health than a piece or two a day.  Plus, it’s okay to incorporate foods you enjoy into your diet (within reason of course). Just make sure to opt for dark chocolate (70% cacao minimum) most of the time and be sure to factor the chocolate into your daily caloric needs as well as your total sugar intake to avoid unwanted weight gain.

Next up, Should You Eat: Chia Seeds.  What other foods would you like to see featured?

**Statistics from Nutrition Action Healthletter, December 2013 issue