Food Focus on Chocolate for Runners
Everyone loves a sweet treat and runners are no exception. Our aim is to help you find a way of enjoying “dark chocolate” as well as adding some nutritional benefits to your food plan. Also, worth mentioning dark chocolate is an acquired taste but once your taste buds have adapted, you’ll love it. The flavour is so intense that you’ll find you don’t over eat as it’s so satisfying.
Our discussion will cover:
1. KEY nutritional properties in chocolate and how they can support a runner.
2. We’ll share some recipe ideas using chocolate.
3. How to choose a good quality chocolate and some of our favourite brands.
To clarify, we are talking about DARK Chocolate – chocolate made from Cacao beans – not the highly refined sugary commercialised brands.
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A little about cacao!
· Cacao, is the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao.
· Cocao liquor is the paste made from ground, roasted, shelled, and fermented cocao beans, called nibs. It contains both non-fat cocao solids and cocao butter. Cocao liquor is what is referred to as ‘‘percent cacao’’ on food packaging.
· Powder is made by removing some of the cocao butter from the liquor.
· Chocolate is a solid food made by combining cocao liquor with cocoa butter and sugar. The proportion of cocao liquor in the final product determines how dark the chocolate is.
Nutritional Properties of Cacao and potential health and performance benefits to runners:
Cacao beans contain a high level of polyphenols of which there is a subset of nutrients called flavanoids – flavan-3-ols in particular, cacao contains epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidin. Research shows that flavonoids may contribute to cacao’s cardioprotective effects and anti-oxidant effects.
Increase vasodilation and blood flow to working muscles
Flavanoids also promote bio availability of Nitric Oxide which naturally increases the flow of blood and oxygen to working muscles. A greater supply of oxygen to the working muscles results in boosts to strength and endurance performance important for runners.
Increase Your Aerobic Capacity
A study in 2016 looked at “Beneficial effects of dark chocolate on exercise capacity in sedentary people”. It was a small study of 17 participants who consumed 20 g of dark chocolate daily for 3 months – at end of study they had experienced a 17% increase in their VO2 max i.e how efficiently you use oxygen.
The researchers believe that epicatechin, can help the mitochondria—or the powerhouse of your cells—function more efficiently.
One study which looked at 9 endurance trained cyclists consuming a chocolate milk drink as a recovery aid following interval work outs on 3 separate day. They compared performance with Choc Milk against a fluid replacement drink and a carbohydrate replacement drink and found …
Time to Exhaustion (TTE) and Total Work (WT) were significantly greater for chocolate milk and Fluid Replacement (FR trials) compared to Carbohydrate Replacement (CR) trial. The results of this study suggest that chocolate milk is an effective recovery aid between two exhausting exercise bouts.
Can anti-oxidant properties of flavonoids in cacao reduce inflammation?
Endurance running is a contributor to acute inflammation in the muscles and joints, so it’s thought that eating good quality dark chocolate before or after a training run may help reduce the inflammation.
However, a review in 2019 looked at the effects of cocoa polyphenols on exercise-associated tissue damage and impairment of exercise performance and found acute, sub-chronic, and chronic cocoa polyphenol intake may reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress but NOT INFLAMMATION, while mixed results are observed in terms of exercise performance and recovery.
This review was based on thirteen randomized clinical trials on cocoa ingestion that involved a total of 200 well-trained athletes, but interestingly no female athletes.
They concluded that inflammation provoked by physical activity is directly related to the intensity of the effort, if the exercise bout is excessive in terms of intensity and/or duration, the human body may need some external “aid” to activate the recovery process.
This is the interesting bit ….
The anti doping agency has a list of forbidden substances issued and continuously updated, leaving many possibilities open for the introduction and use of non-doping supplements.
A number of substances of vegetal origin have been PROPOSED as potential tools to delay fatigue onset during physical activity and/or to promote the recovery process.
Chocolate and cocoa polyphenols are among these substances!!!
It’s thought that dark chocolate may act as an ergogenic support due to its richness in saturated fat and sugar, but being also rich in theobromine, and caffeine, it might directly act as a stimulant on the central nervous system.
So, watch this space!! Chocolate is regarded as food but if these nutrients were formulated as a supplement they may be banned!
How does dark chocolate promote feel good feelings?
Cacao contains an amino acid called TRYPTOPHAN that your brain uses to produce the neurotransmitter SEROTONIN, which can increase feelings of overall happiness. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical and influences your mood. Serotonin levels increase with the amount of cacao, so darker chocolate, or raw cacao gives you the most effect.
Also contained in dark chocolate is PHENYLETHYLALANINE (PEA) - a chemical that increases dopamine secretion in our bodies.
Dopamine is known as the happy hormone - It controls mental and emotional responses but also motor reactions.
Another plant compound in cacao is THEOBROMINE - it’s a mild stimulant similar to caffeine. It produces a “high” that people experience after eating dark chocolate. It is a vasodilator (widens blood vessels, therefore increases oxygen and decreases blood pressure- also why it’s an aphrodisiac.
If you are a dog owner you’ll know that chocolate is toxic for them – it’s due to the theobromine – dogs are not able to metabolise it so it can build up to toxic levels and can be fatal.
Mineral Content of Dark Chocolate
Cacao contains many minerals such as magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, Iron, potassium and zinc.
Key role of minerals
· A healthy vascular function is dependent on several minerals such as magnesium, copper, potassium and calcium
· Magnesium is a cofactor in protein synthesis, muscle relaxation, and energy production
· Copper is a cofactor for a number of enzymes and is required for processes, including iron transport and glucose metabolism
· You could almost regard cacao as a multi mineral food source
Recipe and menu ideas on how chocolate may be added as part of your meal plan ….
The key ingredients to use are cacao powder and cacao nibs. Cacao butter is mostly for making homemade chocolate.
• Cacao and Black Cherry Smoothie – any time of the day usually with a scoop of protein powder and some non-dairy milk, a large teaspoon of cacao powder and a cup of frozen black cherries. It’s thick and creamy and you get and intense chocolatey taste – if you need more sweetness add a teaspoon of honey or ¼ banana
· Hot chocolate almond milk drink as a post run recovery drink
· Trail mix of Cacao Nibs, Goji Berries and Pumpkin Seeds which go very well with a cup of liquorice tea as an afternoon snack
· Chocolate orange protein balls - nuts/seeds/coconut oil alongside cacao powder and orange essence
· Flapjacks drizzled with chocolate
· Nut Butter Cups – using tiny paper cup cases – you put a walnut in each paper case, then you melt dark chocolate with a nut butter and spoon it over the walnuts in the cup – then chill and then serve
· Cacao Chia Pudding – mix dry chia seeds with some cacao powder then soak in a non-dairy milk like almond or coconut – make in individual pots – easy to have as part of a meal or a snack
· Chocolate Beetroot Brownies – a very intense flavour so you only need a small square, serve with Greek yoghurt and blueberries
· Chocolate Almond Orange Cake – no flour just ground almonds, eggs, cacao powder and coconut sugar – lovely treat as a dessert.
How do we choose a good quality chocolate bar?
We suggest you apply the same principles we advise when choosing any foods:
· ORGANIC means you can be assured that ingredients have been farmed without exposure to pesticides
· Choosing a FAIR TRADE AND ETHICAL SUPPLIER will ensure that the farmers have not been exploited and have been paid fairly and that the packaging of the chocolate is plastic free and may be recycled. Remember we are always looking for plastic free to minimise exposure to xeno oestrogens which are endocrine “hormonal disruptors”
· Choosing a RAW Chocolate – means the cacao bean will not have been heated to high temperature so will have retained a high level of nutrients than highly processed beans – RAW would be a good choice
· INGREDIENTS – look at the label– the fewer the better – will probably list CACAO SOLIDS – look for 70% or higher 90-100% is best, then you may see FRUIT (often dried or powdered) OR NUTS LISTED AND FLAVOURING MAY BE SUGAR, SALT OR SPICE or an essential oil
· SUGAR – it’s important that a natural sugar has been used – you may see coconut sugar/syrup or I use maple syrup for homemade chocolate
Chocolatiers are artisans and take great pride in the source of their ingredients so check out their websites and they’ll explain about the ingredients they have included.
Green and Black – they are a good budget choice and available in most shops – choose bars in their 70% and 85% cacao and labelled as organic and fair trade – beware not all their bars are of this quality. https://www.greenandblacks.co.uk/
Pana Organic chocolate – they advertise as handmade, organic, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, soy free and refined sugar free. Made in Australia – they don’t list all the ingredients on packaging but you’ll find on their website that everything is organic and ethically sourced. https://pana-organic.co.uk/
Tony’s - https://tonyschocolonely.com/uk/en - their founder based business on ethics – he wants the world to buy slave free chocolate. We would only recommend the 70% cacao dark chocolate variety….not all of the other flavours are very healthy!!
Conscious Chocolate are RAW and handmade in UK – high quality ingredients - free from gluten, soya, dairy and refined sugars. They do an 85% dark, the flavoured tend to be around 65% - also they do small 30g bars. https://consciouschocolate.com/collections
Raw Chocolate Company have a good range of ingredients to make homemade chocolate as well as chocolate bars and products – when buying their products do check labels as sometime cacao % isn’t as high as we’d recommend. https://www.therawchocolatecompany.com/collections/all
Om Bar is in many shops so easily found and RAW ORGANIC VEGAN FAIR FOR LIFE and a wide range of bars with high Cacao % and some of their bars contain added Lactobaccillus Acidophillus (good gut bacteria – not sure how effective it is??) Also they have a range of bar sizes and buttons. They have this great tool on their website where you can use a sliding scale of cacao % from sweet and creamy to dark and intense to choose your chocolate - hours of fun! https://shop.ombar.com/collections/pure-chocolate
80UltraNoir - during our research we found a wonderful supplier https://www.80noirultra.com whose founder Carole Armitage, is an experienced endurance runner as well as a chocolatier and she has created a range of bars to support runners .The chocolate is combined with other natural ingredients such as ginger, brazil nuts, cinnamon and chilli to fuel performance and recovery and help to aid muscle recovery, boost energy and soothe stress. We have some on order so will let you know what we think of them!
1. Cacao is a powerful source of nutrients including flavonoids, a wide range of minerals
· Flavonoids (epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidin) which are cardio protective and have anti-oxidant properties, also increases vasodilation and blood flow to working muscles, and supports an increase in aerobic capacity
· The mineral content of cacao helps to support a healthy vascular system
· Cacao promotes production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical and influences your mood.
· Cacao contains PHENYLETHYLALANINE (PEA) - a chemical that increases dopamine secretion which promotes feelings of happy emotions
· THEOBROMINE in cacao, acts as a mild stimulant similar to caffeine, giving you a “high” feeling
2. When choosing dark chocolate products choose those with a high cacao content – ideally over 70% cacao for therapeutic benefits.
3. We encourage you to choose chocolate suppliers who use organic ingredients which are ethically sourced.
4. Enjoy good quality dark chocolate knowing that it is not harmful and will add to your nutritional status and perhaps your running performance and recovery.
The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and
advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment.
If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact
your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.
Aileen Smith and Karen Campbell met at as nutrition students (Institute for Optimum Nutrition, London) and became lifelong friends and nutritional buddies! Both have a love of running and a passion for nutrition, delicious food and healthy living.
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