Bicycle Network: Health Matters
Chocolate: It's no sin
Need some justification for that guilty post-ride pleasure? Toni Jordan unwraps one of your favourite treats.
Think of an indulgence food, and most of us think of chocolate – it tastes delicious and it’s easy to throw a bar in your pannier ready for a long ride (or a short one). But chocolate has health benefits too.
Eating chocolate has a number of effects:
- The sugar and fat provide a rush of energy. This is great in the short term, and can be very useful to overcome that mid-ride bonk. But, eaten too frequently, high sugar foods put our bodies on a rollercoaster of energy highs and lows.
- Research at the University of Buenos Aires showed that regular chocolate consumption reduced blood pressure and cholesterol, and improved the health of the blood vessels in young male athletes. (This research used soccer players, but it is equally relevant to cyclists). Other research has shown chocolate reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by having an anti-inflammatory effect on blood vessels, and by acting as a blood thinner.
- Chocolate milk is a great recovery drink for athletes. Tests on endurance cyclists at the University of Indiana have shown that chocolate milk is at least as good, and sometimes better, than commercial sports drinks for speeding recovery, because of its high carbohydrate and protein levels.
- Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine, which affects different people in different ways. Some people barely notice the stimulant effect, while for others it’s exactly what they need to climb that last hill. If you are sensitive, don’t have chocolate within six hours of bed time.
But what exactly is in chocolate?
Chocolate is rich in powerful antioxidants called flavonoids. They are found in a range of plants including cocoa beans, the source of chocolate. Cocoa beans contain more than 600 different plant chemicals, and we’re yet to discover what all of them do. It’s hard to generalise about the composition of the chocolate we eat because every manufacturer is different, but the basic ingredient (processed cocoa beans) contains protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and copper and small amounts of vitamins.
It also contains saturated fats called stearic acid and palmitic acid, which oddly enough don’t raise blood cholesterol. That’s the good news. The bad news is that chocolate is high in fat, around 30%. Most commercial chocolate bars have lots of added sugar.
The real trouble with chocolate is the bad company it keeps. Cream, caramel, biscuits… I could go on and on. The health benefits of chocolate justify eating chocolate by itself, not chocolate in a black forest cake at the post-ride café or a Tim Tam at the lights.
So why do we love chocolate?
The biggest chocolate fans are usually women, who are more likely to crave sweet, high fat carbohydrates. (Men are more likely to crave high protein, high salt foods like steak, chips and pizza.) But it’s not just about the fat and sugar. Chocolate itself contains substances that are closely related to cannabinoids, the chemical in marijuana smoke that causes a pleasurable high.
If you need a treat, then chocolate is a good one. Choose a high-quality, expensive chocolate because these usually have more antioxidants. (Expensive treats in general have a psychological effect that discourages gorging.) Dark chocolate has less sugar and twice the amount of flavonoids than milk chocolate.
Remember that chocolate, and all sweet, fatty foods, can have an addictive affect, so keep your portion size small.
This article first appeared in the April-May 2006 Issue of Ride On.
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