Written by Nathan Travell
Chocolate & The Athlete
Chocolate is a bit of a controversial food group – many people erroneously believe that it is the cause of fat gain, and immediately cut it out come early January, but what if I told you that many high performing athletes actually gain massive benefits from it? You don’t need to be at the top of your game to reap these benefits either, just intelligently use it as part of your diet.
First and foremost let’s talk about the stress relieving properties of chocolate – how many times have you had a long hard day at work and bought yourself a choccie bar just to ‘relax’ with? Research shows that, although subtle, just 40grams of chocolate can result in reduced urinary cortisol (a stress hormone) levels[i].
This is important for athletes who will likely be extremely stressed – both mentally and physically. They may be worrying about performing, undergoing massive training sessions (which produce toxic oxygen radicals – this will be covered later) and may even be trying to cut a weight class (which increases cortisol release further). By eating chocolate, the brain will light up in happiness and dopamine will be released, causing a reduction in stress and allowing the athlete to relax properly recover and later perform at their best.
Chocolate is very high in macronutrients (carbohydrate and fat) which is what gives it such a high caloric value (this is covered later). In addition to this, chocolate is also high in fibre (about 11grams per 100g) as well as having great amounts of minerals -67% RDA Iron/ 58% RDA Magnesium/ 89% Copper /98% RDA Manganese.
In fact, it is thought that the high levels of Magnesium may be the cause of chocolate cravings[ii] (modern diets tend to be poor in nutrients). Though there are nutrients in chocolate that can cause negative health effects if eaten to excess (I’m talking about the sugar/saturated fat content), if eaten moderately chocolate can provide a boost to certain ‘good’ nutrients that you may be lacking in.
As well as the aforementioned minerals, chocolate (especially dark chocolate) is rich in flavonoids. These act as antioxidants – which counter the toxic effects of oxygen radicals that are produced in higher levels during exercise![iii] In addition, there is another exercise related benefit from chocolate – it was found that flavonol (a subclass of flavonoids) increases nitrogen oxide availability in blood vessel tissues[iv]. Nitrogen oxide causes blood vessels to relax[v], which improves blood flow. This can lead to increased nutrient availability in your muscles – allowing you to workout harder!
There is also the fact that high levels of calories, relative to your expenditure, can assist in recovery by allowing your body to quickly resynthesize any lost muscle glycogen post workout as well as covering the high metabolic cost of muscle tissue repair.
Athletes may need high-calorie diets to power their training – there have been rumours that Michael Phelps eats around 10,000 kcals per day when his training is at his most extreme. Do you really think that all these calories are “clean”? By using chocolate tactically, an athlete can easily get in the calories they need to perform. By tactically I mean, do not eat around training – the fat content is slow to digest and may cause issues.
Chocolate may also assist in growing muscle tissue – it is high calorie and therefore can help a struggling eater to top off their calories so that they are in a caloric surplus. Again, this needs to be used intelligently – account for the calories (typically muscle building ranges are around 300-500kcals surplus to what you burn off daily).
So long as the high calories, sugar and fat content are accounted for in your diet (as in, the rest of your diet needs to be relatively lower in calories, sugar and fat in order to avoid negative health implications), chocolate can help the athlete by reducing stress, offering some subtle health benefits and allowing them to easily ingest higher amounts of calories.