The Bitter Truth About Chocolate

Posted: April 8, 2012 in Nutrition, Training
Tags: , ,
  • Long (Easy) Run (click to see stats)
  • 11.25k (1:00:01)
  • Avg. Heart Rate = 147 bpm
  • Max. Heart Rate = 154 bpm
  • Avg. Pace = 5:20 min/km
  • Best Pace = 4:30 min/km
  • Calories = 1069
  • Temp = 11º
  • SOTD: ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ by The Black Keys

It’s the Easter weekend, and you know what that means:  C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E. 

Yes, Easter, the Jan Brady of holidays; that confusing mass consumer-based holiday whose true religious significance has evolved into something so banal that its very ridiculousness can knock you over the head with all the weight of a four-ton Cadbury’s Cream Egg.  I mean, seriously, how bunnies and chocolate eggs became associated with the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is beyond me and entirely worthy of a completely separate blog post.  As a matter of fact, if you’re interested, you can click HERE  for more info.

What this specific weekend represents for me, however, is just another training day with one additional twist:  the tempting lure of that heavenly milk-chocolately goodness afterwards.  At approximately .023k  into my long run, or about the 3 second mark of my 11.25k  easy run (recovery week), the craving sets in and it’s all I think about with each strive and passing kilometer.  Total workout killer!  Hey, I like my chocolate bunnies as much as the next guy – maybe even more – and if I don’t do all this triathlon shit for the odd guilt-free indulgence then what the hell am I doing it for?

But, this begs the ultimate question then, ARE there any plausible excuses to indulge – even if just a little – in some chocolately Easter goodness.  I wonder if there are any health benefits for chocolate.  In an effort then to explain and rationalize those ample chocolate stains around my lips and the protruding belly poking out from under my running shorts after I pass out on the couch from a self-induced sugar high once my girlfriend gets home from work, I figured I’d Google it and see what justifications I could find as possible defense.

As it turns out, there is!  But first let’s come clean on one thing:  we’re really discussing the pros of chocolate in its purest form – as close to the bean as you can get. If you want me to tell you a Milky Way bar is good for you, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.  Nor can I ever expect to completely justify inhaling copious amounts of Cadbury’s mini eggs by the bucketful; no one would ever buy it.  That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t any chocolate bars that are good for you. The key is to find a bar with high cocoa content. The higher the cocoa content, the less room there is for cocoa butter, sugar, lecithin, vanilla, milk, and all the other tasty stuff that makes chocolate less of a vegetable and more of a candy.  Dark chocolate might require a little getting used to in the beginning, but with some research and dedicated sampling, there are some pretty delectable options out there even you might pay a bit more for them.  But, hey, it’s chocolate we’re talking about here, bitch, and good things in life are seldom cheap.

Now having said that, just what are the amazing health benefits of chocolate? Most notably, chocolate is a champion antioxidant.  Antioxidants help rid the body of free radicals, nasty little molecules running amok in your body which cause aging, disease and just about everything else that might hinder you from excelling in long distance endurance.  Antioxidants bond to free radicals and whisk them from your body via digestion and other means; they are your body’s Swiffer  in that regard.  In essence, antioxidants stop us going rusty inside. Quick. Think of the best antioxidants you’ve ever heard of. Red wine? Green tea? Pomegranate? Blueberries? Dark chocolate leaves them all in the veritable dust. The USDA published a chart of antioxidant foods measured in ORACs (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity Units). For every 100 grams, dark chocolate has 13,120  ORACs, and blueberries have only 2,400.

Antioxidant-rich diets have been linked to a lowered risk of heart attacks, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, arthritis, asthma, Alzheimer’s and more, thanks to something known as ‘polyphenols’.  What’s more, the particular polyphenols present in chocolate are of the super-protective variety known as ‘procyanidin flavonoids’.  While some of these flavonoids contain just one unit and are classed as monomers, the most protective are those containing two, three or more units, known as ‘oligomers’.  And, yes, you’ve guessed it, chocolate is especially rich in the larger oligomers that can prevent that harmful LDL-cholesterol from becoming oxidized and taken up into artery walls.

Furthermore, simply put: eating chocolate makes you feel good. It increases brain levels of several chemicals, including mood-altering PEA (‘phenylethylamine’,  related to ‘amphetamine’), which produces a mild, confidence-instilling buzz…or ‘chocolate high’.  Chocolate also contains ‘tryptophan  (that same stuff that gives you that snuggly, warm, euphoric feeling after your Thanksgiving turkey dinner) – a chemical converted to serotonin in the brain to lift mood and increase feelings of pleasure – and ‘theobromine’,  a stimulant that peps you up. Chocolate is also virtually unique in that it melts in the mouth at body temperature, producing a silky, luscious sensation that adds to its appeal and, according to psychologists, is one of the main reasons why chocolate proves so addictive.  But, seriously, do we really need Google to figure that out?

Additionally, chocolate contains mild doses of caffeine.  The amount of caffeine contained in chocolate is around 10 times less than that in the average serving of tea, cola drinks, and even my normal cup of pre-race ‘poop juice’ (coffee).  In fact, low intakes of caffeine can be beneficial, as they improve fat metabolism, exercise endurance, increase alertness and decrease the perception of effort and fatigue.  Shit, that’s right up my alley!  Hell, maybe had I scarfed down a bunny before my long run this morning I might have even succeeded in establishing a new PB for the half marathon distance.

Now, of course it’s not all a Willy Wonka-esque fantasyland, as chocolate also carries some pretty significant drawbacks.  Besides being extremely calorific, not to mention being high in glucose (sugar) lending itself to producing glucose swings which, as well as encouraging you to eat more, it’s being increasingly linked with the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes.  Fuck.  Then there’s the whole acne and tooth decay thing to boot.  So you’re hardly an easy Snickers bar away from perfect health, a six pack and a winning smile.

But here’s another interesting tidbit.  You know already that lead is bad for you, right? This is why we have such a thing as “unleaded” gasoline, and in general don’t allow lead near anything we’re about to breathe or eat.  So what does this have to do with chocolate you ask?  Well, it just so happens that the shells of cocoa beans, the chief ingredient in chocolate, have an almost supernatural ability to absorb lead from the air. Of course, this is only a big deal if there’s a lot of lead in the air, right?  Sure, which is why it’s unfortunate that Nigeria, where a shitload of our cocoa comes from, still has lead in their gasoline. That’s why a Hershey bar tastes so damn good: The secret ingredient is African exhaust.  It’s true, the average candy bar ranks fourth for highest lead content in a food.  But don’t panic yet; lead occurs naturally in everything, even wholesome vegetables and grains, and while there is no amount of lead that isn’t harmful to the human body, a little bit of the stuff in our bloodstream is more or less unavoidable and probably won’t do anything bad enough that we’ll ever notice.  Fingers crossed.

However, given this weekend for what it is, it stands to reason that if chocolate is so chocked full of antioxidants and polyphenols, while providing us a bit of a boost, it’s actually good for you.  I realize that this might be a bit of a far stretch, but I’m tired and my legs hurt and I’m really craving the sweet stuff so I’m choosing to go with it.  So how do I incorporate chocolate successfully into my diet, even if just for the weekend?

All in all, it seems that, as part of a balanced diet, we might all benefit from eating – minimally – 100g of chocolate per day – but make sure it is dark, not to mention expensive!  Likewise, instead of gorging yourself, try and consume small amounts after a meal while you are already full.  That way, hopefully, you will be less likely to over-indulge in the long run and ultimately only add on all those calories that you burned during your workout earlier in the day.  However, if you really want to stay on the straight-and-true path, I have a solution: try carob chips instead.

Carob chips are made out of carob powder. They are similar in appearance and texture to chocolate chips, although the taste is distinctly different from that of chocolate. Carob is a naturally sweet substance, so there is generally no sugar added to the chips during manufacture, and they also lack the stimulants caffeine and ‘theobromine’  found in chocolate.  Because carob needs less sugar than chocolate to make it sweet, carob chips have long been used as a health-food substitution. Plain carob has about one-third of the calories of chocolate and is low in fat. Furthermore, there is also some evidence that you can use carob to help ease diarrhea.  Typically, I satisfy my periodic chocolate cravings by adding a few carob chips to my fruit salad or yogurt at lunchtime or for dessert.

Today, however, I’m putting my healthy lifestyle on temporary hold and sitting down with a chocolate Easter bunny the size of the Empire State Building, and mowing down on that bad boy like my life depended on it.  And if anyone has a problem with that, they can go suck a chocolate egg for all I care…this triathlete wants his holiday reward.

And another one bites the dust…

  1. Jan says:

    From one chocoholic to another. …..I LOVED THIS POST! Thanks for doing all the work to get the facts. Now I can use them with all my friends who are always after me to reduce my chocolate consumption. I love it more than my kids! Thanks Terry!

  2. Mom says:

    I’ve looked everywhere, but that Easter Bunny has either hidden well or has forgotten me all together this year—-BOO HOO.

  3. Mom says:

    It has been a real let down—with the amount I paid the Easter Bunny over the years , I certainly hope that that he has spent the money wisely and got his PHD in chocolate making!!!

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