Let’s face it; there is so much awesome food in the world that it can be hard to maintain a healthy diet.
For many people, good food is one of the best things about life – and chocolate is one such food.
It’s understandable that many people find it difficult to stay fit.
Some people resort to periods of healthy dieting to decrease body fat but in the end, end up where they started again because of cravings.
However, did you know that dark chocolate is a treat you can eat while also helping you to stay fit? It’s incredible and true.
So how can such a treat like chocolate provide such substantial physical effects?
The Power or Epicatechin
Most of dark chocolate’s magic relies on epicatechin, one of the many naturally-occurring chemicals found in cocoa beans called flavanols. Flavanols are compounds that improve health and performance. The darker, less processed, and more pure chocolate is the higher concentration of flavanols inside.
This means the health benefits of dark chocolate does not translate to milk chocolate and similar lighter types that are mostly just high in sugar instead.
Epicatechin has been a hot topic in recent studies due to its medical implications. For starters, it is such a powerful antioxidant. Some studies show that it can reduce the risk of stroke, cancer, and some metabolic diseases like diabetes.
A researcher from Harvard Medical School found that Kuna Indians from a place in Panama whose diets include a whole lot of cocoa drinks have healthier hearts.
Dark chocolate and cacao are among the richest sources of flavanols and epicatechin, but they are also available as supplements. As to how they can benefit physical health, here are the main advantages:
Enhanced Blood Flow and Nitrate Oxide Production
Prolonged endurance workouts are simply not for everybody. However, we all require some degree of activity to stay healthy. If you like to workout, though, you're in for a treat!
Epicatechin stimulates vasodilation -- the widening of the blood vessels. This leads to better blood flow, circulation, lower blood pressure, and better athletic performance. So you can get the most out of your workout sessions when you incorporate dark chocolate into your diet.
Flavanols also elevate your nitric oxide levels by inhibiting the enzymes that break them down. Nitric oxide is most useful for its ability to increase the production of satellite cells, which repair damaged muscle cells from high-intensity workouts.
This becomes even more important as a person reaches an older age when production of satellite cells decline and recovery from muscle trauma becomes more difficult.
Another interesting anecdote that might be useful for the older crowd is that the way cacao flavanols increases blood flow is similar to one of the worlds most popular pharmaceuticals, Viagra (hint!). In other words, cacao acts as a natural vasodilator and can help increase your sexual performance.
Enhanced Muscle Growth and Strength
Myostatin is a protein that regulates muscle growth. It restricts muscle growth to avoid hypertrophy (excessive development of an organ). Inhibiting myostatin significantly increases muscle growth, but artificial means for it don't exist yet.
A popular method for increasing muscle mass is the use of anabolic steroids, but it can come with undesirable hormonal side effects especially with overuse.
Myostatin has a counterpart: Follistatin, a regulating protein that interrupts myostatin’s signals. Both proteins counteract each other to achieve homeostasis (bodily balance). In result, muscle growth is apparent but not excessive as what athletes may require.
Recent studies of epicatechin show that the flavanol, when ingested, stimulates the production of follistatin. This results in stronger myostatin signal interruption, making this a potential way to naturally lower myostatin for increased muscle growth without the side effects of anabolic steroids.
Regulation of Blood Glucose
Insulin is one of the key hormones in building muscle and burning fat. It is responsible for forcing glucose out of the bloodstream and triggering protein synthesis by causing a reaction inside muscle cells.
Too much insulin results in insulin resistance, preventing glucose from leaving the bloodstream. This can lead to a whole host of grave diseases such as diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome.
Epicatechin increases glucose removal and insulin sensitivity, improving the handling of glucose. This results in physical benefits such as faster recovery and efficient muscle growth through the improvement of glucose sensitivity in muscle cells.
Improved Muscular Endurance
This point remains as a proof-of-concept experiment result since it was done on animals. An experiment on rats by The Journal of Physiology proved that a daily dose of epicatechin significantly increased their endurance.
They were able to perform more exercises for longer periods of time. Also, the endurance spike caused by the flavonol continued to be in effect even though the subjects were deprived of daily exercise as long as supplementation remained.
While the same experiment had not been done on humans, the results of the study seem to indicate that there is potential for the human body to receive the same endurance boost from epicatechin consumption. This may prove to be most useful for athletes who are undergoing physical de-conditioning.
Epicatechin stimulates ghrelin, a hormone that signals the brain that the person is satiated. Overconsumption of meals affects muscle growth and body fat reduction, and some people fall victim to this due to resistance to ghrelin.
Epicatechin may be able to allow the appetite suppressing functions of the hormone to be effective once again, which can indirectly contribute to better weight management.
Enhanced Testosterone Production
Epicatechin also stimulates the pituitary gland, signaling the increased secretion of two hormones: GnRH (Gonadotropin releasing hormone) and LH (Luteinizing hormone).
This leads to stronger testosterone production, which has other indirect benefits such as increased muscle strength, endurance, growth and improved sexual function. Increased testosterone production especially benefits athletes in intense activities such as heavy resistance training.
Epicatechin may be used for two primary purposes: supplementary muscle growth and anabolic enhancement or general healthy purposes as an antioxidant and nitric oxide booster.
For general health and supplementary purposes, a daily dose of 30-40 grams of dark chocolate is ideal. However, it must be at least 70-85% cocoa content.
Related: Top 10 Testosterone Boosting Foods
For bodybuilding development and anabolic purposes, multiple doses of at least 40-50 grams of dark chocolate throughout the day will suffice. Many bodybuilders use 50-100 grams as a pre-workout and swear by the incredible pump they get from the boost in blood flow and nitric oxide.
Dark Chocolate is also a good bulking food since its high in calories and healthy saturated fats. Pure epicatechin supplements are usually dosed in the 100-300mg per day range.
For both purposes, the dark chocolate to be used must not be processed with alkali, with the reason being that alkalization or Dutch processing removes 60% of the flavnol content, thereby reducing its therapeutic effects. Also, the chocolate must be at least 70% cocoa to ensure minimal metabolic damage from added sugar.
While the prospects of dark chocolate and epicatechin remain bright, studies on them are still ongoing. When it comes to supplementary consumption of dark chocolate for muscle growth, you still have to ensure that the rest of your diet is on par for better cardiovascular health, improved muscle development and recovery, insulin benefits, and more.
You cannot keep eating junk and expect chocolate to do all the work for you. As more breakthroughs regarding the flavonol reach the surface, dark chocolate ought to receive better reception not only as a sweet treat but one that benefits the entire human system.
The idea that sweet and delicious foods are the bane of healthy lifestyles may be common, but in the case of chocolate, we might just have stumbled on the most healthy treat of them all.