You will be pleased to know that chocolate is indeed good for you… or, more precisely, I am just about to reveal some of the wonderful array of raw cocoa powder benefits.
First of all it’s important to distinguish between pure unsweetened cacao powder made from roasted and crushed cocoa beans and chocolate which is made by combining cocoa powder, cocoa butter and anything else you find in a chocolate bar: milk, nuts, emulsifiers, soya lecithin, sugar, etc.
If chocolate is all that’s available then dark chocolate for health (the darker the better) is a better choice than any other type of chocolate.
In fact, when I was a child and was regularly hiking up and down the Italian Alps with my parents or the Summer school guys, we used to fill our rucksacks with dark chocolate bars which we would eat for energy all day long during the hardest and longest hikes.
On this occasion the cocoa butter in the chocolate was actually beneficial as we would spend all day at high altitudes and in all sorts of weather conditions. It made climbing some of the tallest mountains in Europe less painful and provided some soul cuddling every time I fell into a frozen lake seconds after being told not to jump on the ice… RIP the days before the Healthy & Safety madness.
I digress. Apologies.
Chocolate is a powerful hunger suppressant
The main reason that pure unsweetened raw cacao powder can help you lose weight is that it’s a very powerful tool to suppress hunger and cravings while on a restricted calories regime. There isn’t much of a way around this: in order to lose weight we must cut back on the calories that caused us to put it on in the first place (as well as paying attention to where those calories come from).
Until we have learned our unique nutrition formula cutting calories can lead us to become hungry in between meals and start craving all sorts of things that usually look like cakes, crisps, chips, pizza, ice cream and so on. If you are a woman reading this, you will also have to contend with the monthly fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone during your cycle and you will most likely be familiar with the “bottomless pit syndrome” that can happen as the progesterone levels drop off and you get closer to the end of the cycle leading to menstruation.
Cocoa powder can help keep these urges under control. It does this by affecting a chemical compound called GLP-1, a hormone found predominantly in the intestines but also in different parts of the brain and is tasked with regulating food intake. It’s also involved in regulating the release of insulin into the bloodstream and has an action opposed to that of another hormone, ghrelin, responsible for feelings of hunger. 1
In addition to this, the bio-active compounds found in cocoa powder can help raise the levels of endorphines and dopamine making us feel happier and more relaxed. For this reason cocoa powder can be a natural anti-depressant helping us reduce anxiety and balancing our mood during times of stress.
Chocolate is a rich source of magnesium
But wait! There’s more… 😀
Unless you have lived in a world without social media lately you will have no doubt seen the many memes going round warning you about Magnesium deficiencies in the modern Western diet and how you should take this supplement and that supplement to make things ok. Well, as it turns out cocoa powder naturally contains high levels of Magnesium making it incredibly useful in modulating blood pressure, stabilizing your sleeping patterns and ensuring continued cardiovascular health. It also contains Copper which helps with oxygenation of the blood having a positive impact on preventing the onset of dementia.
Chocolate can help control cravings for starchy foods
Consuming raw unsweetened cocoa powder is an acquired taste but it is so effective at suppressing hunger and crazy cravings that it’s worth putting up with the bitter taste and finding a way of making it palatable without compromising its properties.
Whenever my hormones go on a rollercoaster ride leaving me hungry when I shouldn’t be (because I have been meticulous with my nutrition) I make myself a hot drink by mixing a heaped tablespoon of cocoa powder with some hot water, a few drops of vanilla extract and perhaps some cinnamon. I don’t like using sweeteners but if you do you could perhaps add some Stevia to it and/or some unsweetened almond milk.
I sometimes add half a scoop of pure whey protein powder or just BCAAs and I can be guaranteed to feel pleasantly full and chillaxed for a good few hours and certainly until my next meal. As well as making me more comfortable throughout the day it also means that I want to put less food on my plate because I am not starving.
Chocolate can help you build muscle, lose fat and slow down aging
One of the many nuisances associated with old age is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle (sarcopenia) and the increase in body fat. So far the best way of countering this process has been thought to be exercise, however this can be a problem for those who are suffering from other ailments or injuries that cause them to be less mobile.
For some strange reason there don’t seem to be many studies available on other ways of slowing down the onset of sarcopenia perhaps through the use of supplements or dietary changes. However, this might be about to change thanks to a “proof of concept” trial in humans 4 that suggests there is a way of reversing this aspect of aging in the older populations even without resistance training.
To explain sarcopenia in a very (very!) simplified manner you could say that there are two main modulators responsible for skeletal muscle growth: Myostatin and Follistatin. The former inhibits muscle growth and levels in the blood stream increase with age. The latter, instead suppresses the effects of Myostatin thus allowing continued muscle growth (including the heart), or at least less loss of it, well into old age (levels decrease with age).
The compound that affects the balance between Myostatins and Follistatins is one of the flavanoids contained in cocoa called (-)-epicatechin. A recent study carried out in Mexico on a very small number of human subjects has yielded encouraging results: by supplementing their diet over 7 days with a small quantity of pure (-)-epicatechin (less than 1mg/Kg of body weight per day) those receiving the supplement recorded an increase in bilateral hand grip strength of approx. 7% plus a favourable increase in the ratio of Follistatins vs. Myostatins of approx. 49% although the individual values were not reported. These results replicated previous findings on similar experiments carried out on mice and it was concluded that this is an area which warrants investing in further thorough research as the implications could be huge should a viable supplement with standardised levels of (-)-epicatechin be developed.
The active flavanol is naturally contained in raw cocoa and dark chocolate (but also in green tea!). Consuming moderate amounts of either product every day (30g) should be enough to encourage a small increase in Follistatins and therefore prevent too much muscle wastage as we get older, although we shouldn’t be tempted to go gung-ho in our quest for Myostatin suppression as this can cause brittle and weaker tendons and ligaments. So, as is often the case, moderation is the key until more research has been conducted on larger groups of human subjects and the side effects and contraindications of supplementing with (-)-epicatechins have investigated over long term.
All of the above is the reason why I include copious amounts of cocoa powder in my home made post workout recovery protein bars.
Where to find raw unsweetened cocoa powder?
One thing to watch out for is that many supermarkets don’t sell pure cocoa powder, the only one I have found so far that does is Tesco (according to the label) so make sure to read the box carefully before buying a product that says cocoa because it will almost certainly contain fillers and various additives. Your local health food store should be able to procure organic raw cacao powder though and of course there are loads of online retailers too.
How do you like taking your cocoa?
1. Holst, J.J. – “The Physiology of Glucagon-like Peptide 1” (2007), Physiological Reviews
2. Hollenberg, N.K. & Fisher, N.D.L. “Is it the dark in dark chocolate?” (2007), American Heart Association
3. I. Andujar et al., “Cocoa polyphenols and their potential benefits for human health (PDF)” (2012), Hindawi Publishing Corporation
4. Gutierrez-Salmean G. et al., “Effects of (−)-epicatechin on molecular modulators of skeletal muscle growth and differentiation” (2014), J Nutr Biochem. 2014 Jan; 25(1): 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2013.09.007.