Dark Chocolate, Cocoa Flavanols, and Enhanced Athletic Performance

Dark Chocolate, Cocoa Flavanols & Enhanced Athletic Performance

Recent Study Links Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Flavanols to Enhanced Athletic Performance

For most people, chocolate is delicious. Regardless of what their personal preference may be (milk or dark) there’s at least one cocoa-derived delight out there that tickles their sweet tooth. Despite chocolate’s centuries-old history, the kind of chocolate that we’ve come to know and love has only been around for the last 170 years or so. And only in recent decades has the western world truly started to discover that along with being great for making delicious treats, cocoa (especially the phytochemical components) may also be great for our health.

What’s the difference between flavonoids and Flavanols? Great question! Flavonoid is the name for the larger family of naturally occurring polyphenol compounds (which can be found in a variety of veggies, fruits, and other plant-based foods). Flavanol is a specific group of flavonoid compounds – those found predominantly in cocoa, red wine, and tea.Cocoa Flavanols and Improved Athletic Performance

We’ve known for some time that cocoa flavanols have been linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and some other beneficial effects, but according to one recently published a study from the Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition, there’s new evidence supporting their ability to help athletes make the most of a workout! Let’s take a closer look at what Patel et al. set out to do, how they did it, and the results they found.

Beetroot Juice, Nitric Oxide and a Hypothesis

What could beetroot juice and nitric oxide possibly have to do with a study on chocolate and cocoa flavanols? As it turns out – everything!

The initial prompt for the study was based on an observation made by the researchers: Recently, there’s been an increase in use of sodium nitrate and nitrate-rich dietary supplements (and nitrate rich foods like beetroot juice) among athletes thanks to the existing (not to mention consistent) research supporting the link between the nitrates and reduced oxygen demands during moderate physical activity and resting blood pressure.

Even though beetroot juice has gained moderate popularity among athletes looking to take advantage of these methods, there are two drawbacks: 1) a less than ideal taste, and 2) an inability to provide a significant amount of energy – which is exactly why our researchers decided to bring chocolate into the fold.

The cocoa flavanols found in abundance in dark chocolate have been recognized for their ability to increase both the bioavailability and the bioactivity of nitric oxide (NO). In turn, an increase in the NO availability is what’s been linked to reduced oxygen demands and better athletic performance.

And such is the hypothesis:

When administered to athletes who will be performing moderate exercise, cocoa flavanols in the form of dark chocolate, will improve nitric oxide bioavailability and activity, reduce oxygen consumption, and improve athletic performance in a way that is comparable to when athletes are given sodium nitrate or nitrate-rich supplements or foods.

Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate and Men on Bicycles

Hypothesis in hand, the researchers set out to test their idea. They gathered nine “moderately-trained” male volunteers and established baseline measurements for the two cycling test (one 20 minute test where the men cycled at 80% of their gas exchange threshold and another two minute timed trial).

Once the baselines were established, the real tests began. Relying on a randomized crossover design, the participants were asked to perform two more trials at two-week intervals. Over the course of the trials, participants were given either 40g of dark chocolate or 40g of white chocolate to consume daily. During each trial, the oxygen consumption, respiratory exchange ratio (RER), blood pressure, and blood lactate levels of each participant were measured.

Wrappers and Results

Along with what was probably a sizable pile of chocolate wrappers, here’s what the researchers found:

  • Dark chocolate consumption increased the work rate at 80% GET by 11% more than white chocolate and 21% more than the baseline (P<0.05).
  • Dark chocolate consumption improved timed trial distances when compared to the baseline, but by an insignificant amount when compared to white chocolate (P<0.05).
  • Final Conclusion: “It can be concluded that ingestion of DC [dark chocolate] for 14 days reduced the oxygen cost of moderate intensity exercise and may be an effective ergogenic aid for short-duration moderate intensity exercise. However, future double-blinded studies will need to confirm this effect”

The Tasty Takeaway

While there is a need for further research, the preliminary results are nothing less than exciting. This study is just one of many exploring the potential effects and health potential benefits of cocoa flavanols. As of now, cocoa flavanols hold an incredible amount of opportunities for both researchers and those looking to incorporate them into their dietary supplements.

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