By Nancy Clark MS, RD, CSSD
Chocolate—Is it a bad food for athletes, an addictive drug, and the instigator of dietary disasters? Or is it a health food, dieter's weight loss aid, and effective recovery food for tired, hungry athletes?
I vote for the latter! Personally and professionally, I like to think of chocolate (in moderation, of course) as one of life's pleasures. Here is some research that might be of interest to active people who love chocolate.
Chocolate Cake—or Breakfast?
Chocolate cake for breakfast enhances weight loss. Really? Yes, according to researcher Prof. Daniela Jacubowicz (1). The subjects were 193 obese, non-diabetic adults who ate either a 300-calorie low carbohydrate breakfast or a 600-calorie breakfast that included protein plus chocolate cake (or another sweet dessert). Both groups were instructed to eat the same amount of total calories: 1,400 for the women and 1,600 for the men. In the first 16 weeks, both groups lost an average of 33 pounds per person. But in the second half of the study, the no-cake group had poor compliance and regained an average of 22 pounds per person while the cake-eaters continued to lose another 15 pounds each. By 32-weeks, the cake eaters had lost about 40 pounds more than their peers.
Prof. Jacubowicz noticed that those who had cake for breakfast had fewer cravings for carbohydrates and sweets later in the day. By frontloading their calories, they were less hungry and less likely to stray from their food plans. They had curbed their cravings for sweets and treats, in comparison to the group that ate the smaller breakfast.
So what does this research mean for you?
1) Eat a satisfying breakfast that leaves you content. Do not stop eating breakfast just because you think you should.
2) If you want a treat, such as chocolate cake, enjoy it earlier in the day, as opposed to indulging at 9:00 p.m. when you are tired, too hungry, and lack the mental energy needed to stop yourself from overeating. Think of it as having dessert after breakfast instead of after dinner.
3) Even on a weight reduction diet, you should eat what you truly want to eat, without deprivation of your favorite foods. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing “last chance” eating. (You know, “I just blew my diet by eating cake, so I might as well keep eating it because this is my last chance before my diet starts again…”)
Note: Even people with diabetes can substitute chocolate cake for grains at a meal without creating blood glucose problems. Just eat the cake instead of—not in addition to—the grains! (2)
Dark Chocolate—A “Health Food”?
It’s not a secret: a candy bar contains primarily nutrient-poor calories from sugar and fat. For example, a Hershey's Bar (43 g) contains 210 calories—of which 46% are from sugar, 55% from fat. Hence, you want to enjoy milk chocolate in moderation, not in binges…
However, less-processed dark chocolate can be considered a healthier choice. Chocolate is made from cocoa, a plant that is a rich source of health-protective phytochemicals (just like you'd get from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains). Two tablespoons natural cocoa power (the kind used in baking) offers the antioxidant power of 3/4 cup blueberries or 1.5 glasses red wine. Unfortunately, dark chocolate has a slightly bitter taste and most people prefer the sweeter milk chocolate, a poorer source of phytochemicals. (We need to raise our children on dark chocolate, so they will they learn to prefer it!)
Dark chocolate also contains flavonoids, health-protective compounds found in many plant foods including tea, apples, and onions. Epidemiological surveys of large groups of people indicate those who regularly enjoy chocolate consume more of these health-protective flavonoids than non-chocolate eaters. This reduces their risk of heart disease. For example, in the Netherlands, elderly men who routinely ate chocolate-containing products reduced their risk of heart disease by 50% and their risk of dying from other causes by 47% (3). Maybe a daily (preferably dark) chocolate fix can be a good idea?
Chocolate Milk—for Recovery?
If you’ve just had a killer workout and want to rapidly refuel and repair your muscles, boost your blood sugar, and replace sweat losses—as well as reward yourself with a tasty treat—reach for some low fat chocolate milk! Research indicates refueling with chocolate (or any flavored) milk enhances recovery of both fluids and muscles better than the standard carb-only, sugar-based sports drink (4).
Anyone responsible for stocking the recovery food table for tired, thirsty athletes who want to rapidly refuel after a hard workout will tell you chocolate milk is an all-time favorite. Weight-conscious female athletes, in particular, let themselves enjoy this treat “guilt-free” and meanwhile boost their intake of nutrient commonly missing in their diet, such as high quality protein, riboflavin, calcium, and vitamin D. What a positive change from their embattled relationship with chocolate! This is good.
But shouldn’t we be staying away from sugary foods? The World Health Organization recommends a limit of 10% of calories from refined sugar per day; that's about 200 to 300 sugar-calories for most athletes. Getting sugar from chocolate milk is nutritionally preferable than from sports drinks. Milk's high quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin and a host of other important nutrients is far better than sugar water with a dash of salt!
For those of you who happen to read the Boston Globe (3/13/12), you might have caught my answer to a healthwriter's criticism of USA Swimming for choosing chocolate milk as a sponsor. My response: “Kudos to USA Swimming for choosing to be sponsored by a whole food as opposed to an engineered sports food. To have role-model athletes touting low fat chocolate milk is preferable to the alternative of them touting sports drinks. I only wish more “real food” companies would do the research needed to counter the influential engineered sports food industry.”
The bottom line
By no means is chocolate the key to a healthy sports diet, nor is eating lots of dark chocolate preferable to snacking on apples and bananas. We all need to eat chocolate in moderation so it does not crowd-out other nutrient dense foods. But chocolate can be balanced into an overall wholesome sports diet and add pleasure to the day—even if you are dieting to lose weight. For chocolate lovers, deprivation of chocolate may create more problems than it solves.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and sportsnutritionworkshop.com.
1. Jakubowicz D, O Froy, J Wainstein, M Boaz. Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids 77(4): 323-331, 2012.
2. Peters, AL, MB Davidson, K Eisneberg. Effect of isocaloric substitution of chocolate cake for potato in type I diabetic patients. Diabetes Care 13(8):888-92, 1990.
3. Buijsse B, Feskens EJ, Kok FJ, Kromhout D. Cocoa intake, blood pressure, and cardiovascular mortality: the Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med. 27;166(4):411-7, 2006.
4. Lunn WR, Pasiakos SM, Colletto MR, Karfonta KE, Carbone JW, Anderson JM, Rodriguez NR. Chocolate milk & endurance exercise recovery: protein balance, glycogen and performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 44(4):682-91,2012.