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Eating dark chocolate may improve mood

Mood disorders affect almost ten percent of U.S. adults and nearly fifteen percent of adolescents, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With so many people suffering from mood disorders people are looking for answers in nature and food. Fortunately, a recent study suggests eating a common treat—dark chocolate—may positively affect mood and relieve depressive symptoms.

Researchers from University College London joined forces with Canadian scientists from the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services Canada to assess the benefits of chocolate consumption on mood. They analyzed data from over 13,000 adults included in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and assessed their depressive symptoms according to scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire. Other factors such as height, weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, household income, physical activity, smoking, and chronic health problems were taken into account to ensure the study only measured the effects of eating chocolate on mood.

Remarkably, what the scientists found was that people who reported eating dark chocolate in two 24-hour periods had 70% lower risk of reporting relevant depressive symptoms, even after adjusting for the above-mentioned confounding factors. (1) In addition, people who were in the top 25% of eating any type of chocolate were the least likely to report depressive symptoms. The study suggests that eating a bit of dark chocolate on a regular basis can positively benefit mood.

Chocolate contains several beneficial nutrients—fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, selenium, and zinc—and phytocompounds—powerful antioxidants and flavanols—that have proven health benefits. (2) For example, chocolate flavanols improve vascular function and reduce blood pressure. (3a, 3b, 3c) The antioxidants protect cholesterol against oxidation, which can reduce heart disease risk. (4) Interestingly, improved blood flow triggered by chocolate flavanols may also protect the skin against sun damage by increasing blood flow increasing hydration and density. (5) Eating flavanol-rich cocoa can even improve brain function. (6)

Among these beneficial ingredients are phytocannabinoids that can produce a feeling of euphoria when consumed. (7) Phytocannabinoids have the ability to bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system, which regulates mood stress, response, immunity, inflammation, and much more. This stimulates an endorphin release that has an antidepressant-like effect and elevates mood.

Food is a significant and easy way to alter mood levels because of the effects of food consumption on dopamine receptors in the brain. Certain food ingredients (like chocolate) interact with these receptors to activate the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Scientists have even observed that people may crave foods that contain these pleasure-triggering ingredients when feeling sad.

Dark chocolate contains 50%–90% cacao solids, whereas milk chocolate contains from 10%–50% cacao and significantly more sugar. A reasonable portion of dark chocolate to reap health benefits is about 10 to 40 grams per day. Some studies report benefits with as low as 6.3 grams consumed, while others found benefits at 48 grams. However, keep in mind that 40 grams of dark chocolate can provide 220 calories and 13 grams of fat, so don’t overdo it at the expense of your waistline.

So go ahead and indulge in a little dark chocolate to help improve your mood and promote greater happiness. It’s certainly an easy way to stimulate the production of endorphins, create feelings of pleasure, and promote a positive mindset.

Dark chocolate boosts athletic performance and endurance

Dark chocolate has quickly earned a reputation as a superfood with vast human health benefits. Scientists continue to reveal the vast benefits of dark chocolate, including supporting cardiovascular health, providing powerful antioxidants to combat free radical damage, and enhancing brain function. On April 19, 2016, scientists at London’s Kingston University announced an impressive reason for athletes to also celebrate and eat dark chocolate — eating it enhances athletic performance and endurance.

Dark chocolate (chocolate with 70% or more cacao content) is highly nutritious, providing such valuable nutrients as fiber, fatty acids, iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese. In addition, dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants like polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins; and combats free radicals better than other superfoods such as acai berries.(1)

Now, the caveat is dark chocolate is also high in calories — a whopping 600 calories per 100 grams — and contains about six teaspoons of sugar in the same serving, so only small amounts should be consumed on a regular basis. A reasonable daily amount to consume may be 30 to 50 g daily, aiming for 85% cacao content.

Evidence demonstrates that dark chocolate relaxes the arteries to allow blood to flow more freely and mildly lowers blood pressure.(2) In addition, dark chocolate favorably affects cholesterol levels—decreasing LDL cholesterol and oxidized cholesterol while simultaneously increasing HDL cholesterol.(3) These two benefits may contribute to an overall decrease in cardiovascular disease risk. Indeed, research suggests eating dark chocolate most days of the week decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 57%.(4)

Adding to the mounting body of evidence that dark chocolate is a beneficial superfood, scientists at London’s Kingston University suggest that dark chocolate may give athletes and weekend warriors an edge to achieve their fitness goals. The team of researchers led by Rishikesh Kanesh Patel sought to investigate whether epicatechin — a flavanol found in dark chocolate known to increase nitric oxide production in the body — could enhance athletic performance similarly to beetroot juice.

Beet root juice contains nitrates that the body converts to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates the blood vessels and reduces the consumption of oxygen, allowing athletes to work harder and longer. The benefits of increased nitric oxide production particularly improve endurance.

The study authors evaluated the physical fitness of nine amateur cyclists at the beginning of the study. The nine cyclists were divided into two groups. The first group consumed 40 grams of dark chocolate daily for two weeks, whereas the control group consumed 40 grams of white chocolate instead. White chocolate has a much lower cocoa content and therefore fewer epicatechins.

At the end of the two weeks, the cyclists’ physical fitness — heart rate and oxygen consumption — were measured during moderate exercise and time trials. After a seven-day break, the two groups swapped chocolate types and the two-week trial and physical fitness performance measures were repeated.

What the researchers found was that when the groups consumed dark chocolate they had better overall physical fitness. The cyclists’ who consumed dark chocolate used less oxygen and were able to cover more distance during the time trials.

The study requires further larger and controlled studies to confirm the findings but suggests that eating 40 grams of dark chocolate daily could boost athletic performance — particularly among endurance athletes. Mr. Patel is currently conducting further research as part of his doctoral thesis and plans to test dark chocolate against beetroot juice as part of a comparative study.

(1) Crozier SJ, Preston AG, Hurst JW, et al. Cacao seeds are a “Super Fruit”: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products. Chem Cent J. 2011 Feb 7;5:5.

(2) Sudarma V, Sukmaniah S, Siregar P. Effect of dark chocolate on nitric oxide serum levels and blood pressure in prehypertension subjects. Acta Med Indones. 2011 Oct;43(4):224-8.

(3) Baba S, Natsume M, Yasuda A, et al. Plasma LDL and HDL Cholesterol and Oxidized LDL Concentrations Are Altered in Normo- and Hypercholesterolemic Humans after Intake of Different Levels of Cocoa Powder. J Nutr. 2007 Jun;137(6):1436-41.

(4) Djousse L, Hopkins PN, North KE, et al. Chocolate Consumption is Inversely Associated with Prevalent Coronary Heart Disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. Clin Nutr. 2011 Apr;30(2):182–87.