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        Lured to the Dark Side

By Jennifer Hutchison
Published originally on Wednesday, Feb 20, 2008 at 10:46 AM @ Ironman.com

Just stay the word chocolate and you will see some people's eyes glaze over and their mouths start watering. Chocoholism has practically evoked a global addiction. According to some sources, about 50 per cent of all food cravings are for chocolate, with 40% of women and 15% of men reporting regular chocolate cravings.

The sales numbers of chocolate, especially in February (thanks to the stampede for sweets during Valentine's Day), is mind boggling. According to the US Markets for Chocolate, sales reached close to $16 billion in 2006. Packaged Facts has projected the US Market to exceed $18 billion by 2011. That's a lot of chocolate.

Part of the reason for the rise in chocolate consumption is studies that have surfaced over the past five years that show dark chocolate has some health benefits. These studies have fueled the trend where we see dark chocolates appear on grocery and health food store shelves, so you will only see more of this dark and creamy treat in the years to come.

If you love chocolate, and want to be able to rationalize it as part of your Ironman performance nutrition program, you’ll need to make the transition to dark chocolate.

Why is dark chocolate better than other chocolates? Milk chocolate tends to be the most popular chocolate in the US. This type of chocolate, unfortunately, does not have the level of cocoa found in dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is about 20 per cent cocoa solids, with sugar and milk powdered added. This chocolate tends to be much higher in added sugar and contain fats that may actually have a negative impact on cardiovascular health. White chocolate, although very tasty, does not have any of the cocoa bean dark brown pigments … its basically sweetened cocoa butter plus vanilla added.

Dark chocolate is more healthful that other chocolates because of its higher cocoa bean content (more than 60 per cent cocoa solids), with significantly less sugar and additives compared to the commercial grade chocolates found in most markets. Basically, the darker the chocolate and the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the less sweet and more bitter the chocolate becomes. Dark chocolate is an acquired taste, especially for those that have been hooked on milk chocolate, but the transition to the bittersweet taste of dark chocolate can actually make you feel like you are doing something good for yourself.

What are the health benefits of dark chocolate? The phytochemicals, flavonol and procyanidins, are antioxidant compounds found in dark chocolate (also found in tea and wine). They are believed to help reduce the risk of some cancers, reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke (via decreased oxidation of “bad” LDL cholesterol and platelet clotting) and lower blood pressure. In addition to the antioxidants mentioned, dark chocolate also contributes a small amount of calcium, iron and magnesium to the diet.

Health professionals recommend that adults, and athletes in general, up their intake of green tea and promote moderate consumption of wine for exposure to flavonols. Since dark chocolate provides some of the same phytochemicals, the indulgence of dark chocolate does not have to be so sinful anymore.

How much does a person need to consume to reap the benefits? Pharmacist George Nemecz reports that the beneficial effects of dark chocolate (greater than 70 per cent cocoa solids) have been seen with intake of 30 to 90 gms per day. “People who can afford the caloric intake from the fat (10 to 35 gm) can eat three to four bars (1.5oz) or dark chocolate per week, or have a daily cocoa drink with skim milk and a small amount of sugar,” according to Dr. Nemecz.

The key to including dark chocolate into a healthful Ironman nutrition plan is substituting it for other treats or foods that may not provide the same nutritional value. Chocolate is a calorie dense food, so if you add it to what you normally eat, without cutting calories elsewhere, you could see the numbers on the scale rise.

Words of caution: As with some foods and beverages, some people may want to steer clear of or minimize their intake of chocolate.

• If you are sensitive to caffeine or have difficulty falling asleep, it may be best to avoid chocolate four or more hours before bedtime. Caffeine content of one oz dark chocolate bars can be up to 35 mg and cocoa beverages can be as high as 32 mg per eight oz.

• Overweight athletes should wait until they can get down to their “fighting” weight before adding the discretionary calories chocolate delivers. A 1.5 oz bar of dark chocolate provides approximately 200-220 calories with 50% of its calories coming from fat.

• Pregnant women or those trying to conceive may also want to minimize their intake mainly due to the need to cut back on caffeine.

• Athletes prone to migraine headaches may also need to leave the chocolate in its wrapper.

• If you do not fall into any of these categories, you still need to be careful, especially if you have pets at home. Never give chocolate to your pet as they can be poisoned if the natural chemical found in chocolate, theobromine, is high enough.

Below are some ideas of how you can include dark chocolate into your daily Ironman training:

Break half a bar (about .75 oz or 20-25 gm) of dark chocolate into small pieces (you can substitute dark chocolate chips/morsels) and:

• Mix/melt into your hot cereal.

• Add to very hot milk to melt and make hot cocoa. Add sugar to taste. This could be a recovery drink too!

• Melt in the microwave (30 seconds @ 50% power in a glass bowl) and blend in 1-2 Tbsp all natural nut butter. Use as a spread on toast, bagel or fruit.

• Add to whole grain muffins, pancakes, waffles or crepes.

• Add to homemade trail mix or granola bars.

Use natural (not Dutch processed) dark cocoa powder and add to:

• Banana, strawberry or cherry smoothies.

• Pancake or waffle batter.

• 12 oz Lowfat milk or soymilk + 2 tsp sugar for a recovery drink. Heat to make hot cocoa.

Let’s face it, Ironman and Ironman 70.3 training allows us all to enjoy a slightly higher calorie intake. That means as long as you show some restraint on your chocolate fix you can, without guilt, include a regular dose of chocolate into your weekly eating program … just make sure to go to the dark side.

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