Friday, February 17, 2012

Science Friday: For the Love of Chocolate

With Valentine’s Day come and gone (and all my Valentine’s Day chocolates already eaten) it's time to reflect on the health benefits of chocolate. I drink chocolate milk after tough workouts, as it's touted as the best recovery drink because of its optimal ratio of carbs to protein. Also, it’s delicious. Now there is reason to believe it helps with endurance in addition to recovery.

A group led by Moh H. Malek has shown that a flavanol in chocolate, epicatechin, can improve exercise performance. Mice were treated with either water or epicatechin for 15 days and exercised (on a treadmill) or not during those 15 days. It should be noted that while they included analysis comparing exercise to no exercise groups, the exercise paradigm used wasn’t intended to provide any training stimulus. Rather, they were trying to determine if epicatechin worked better when combined with exercise, which they refer to as a metabolic stimulus, something that has been reported to boost the efficacy of a drug. They are essentially trying to determine an appropriate treatment regimen if epicatechin was used as a drug to replicate the benefits of exercise. (See here for how I feel about “exercise drugs.”)

As someone who both regularly exercises and indulges in chocolate, I was most interested in comparing the exercise + water and exercise + epicatechin groups. For exercised mice, epicatechin increased time spent running on a treadmill and increased the time before the EDL muscle (of the front of the leg) fatigued. Muscle capillarity, which increases oxygenation of the tissue, and mitochondrial proteins were also increased in the exercise + epicatechin compared to the exercise + water group. For our purposes, it seems that exercise in combination with epicatechin is better than just exercise alone. Bring on the chocolate!

Epicatechin got a lot of press a few years ago, when Dr. Norman Hollenberg published findings from the Kuna tribe living off the coast of Panama. The Kuna are known to drink a lot of cocoa (40 cups a week!) They also have decreased risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, four of the major causes of death in the Western world. Hollenberg argued that epicatechin should be considered a vitamin, essential for healthy living. This all sounds great to me, I have no trouble getting my daily epicatechin value. The catch: flavanols like epicatechin have been removed from most cocoa products because they taste too bitter. Some people suggested it might be necessary to get the nutritional value of epicatechin from a pill. Excuse me? A pill for chocolate? Where’s the fun in that?

The good news is that all this talk about the benefits of chocolate has led to the emergence of dark chocolate as the real star. You’ve probably heard the heart healthy benefits of dark chocolate. And in fact, dark chocolate products have epicatechin present. So while I prefer my chocolate milky, I suppose I can deal with this compromise.

Notes: Hollenberg works for Mars (the company that makes M&Ms, Twix, etc.), so there is potential bias there. But in a nod to good nutrition, Mars announced a few months ago (and is getting more press today) that they are pulling the plug on all chocolate products over 250 calories. Which means I won’t be getting any more of these. Finally, epicatechin is also in tea, a beverage for which I may just be close to the 40 cups/week limit.

Dream big,

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