Can a food really have similar benefits as regular exercise? It appears that if you are talking about cocoa, the answer is unequivocally yes!
Its cardiovascular, longevity, cancer, muscle growth, fat loss, and stimulatory benefits are nothing short of astounding, and now cocoa has the support of numerous scientific research papers. So let’s see exactly what the existing literature shows that cocoa can do for you and how it can support your training.
Benefits of Cocoa for Muscle Growth
Researchers found that (-)-epicatechin, a flavanol in cocoa, has an anabolic effect on muscle cells: it inhibits myostatin and raises follistatin, a negative regulator of myostatin.(1) For a subsequent mouse study, the researchers then did an experiment with young, 6 months old and over 2 years old, mice. Half of the mice were given 1 mg (-)-epicatechin per kg of bodyweight orally twice a day for two weeks. You can see the results from the figures below.
You can see that in the “epi” groups, myostatin is lower and follistatin is higher. This is a very good thing, because one of myostatin’s main functions is to limit protein synthesis in muscles. Cocoa also increases MyoD and Myogenin, other anabolic markers that are more involved with incorporating satellite cells into existing muscle fibers, which could mean that you will be able to continue to grow over the long term (2).
The researchers then gave human subjects a total of 1 mg (-)-epicatechin per kg bodyweight per day, split up into two doses. The (-)-epicatechin caused a “significant increase (49.2%) in the ratio of plasma follistatin/myostatin levels”.
Benefits of Cocoa for Fat Loss
We already have human studies that confirm that dark chocolate will make you gain less weight and possibly increase the release of appetite-regulating gastro-intestinal hormones.(3) However, further studies have shown that polyphenols in cocoa have a direct effect on the mitochondria of muscle cells (the “powerhouse” of the cell that makes ATP).(4) The figure below shows that the genes responsible for mitochondrial biogenesis increased as a result of supplementation in the mice.
Furthermore, researchers have discovered that there are compounds in cocoa that act in the same way that some of the most powerful body-recomposition and fat loss drugs (i.e. clenbuterol) work: via the beta-adrenergic receptor. Two compounds, N-caffeoyldopamine and N-coumaroyldopamine, are found in cocoa, and they both increase the cAMP concentration as well as stimulate the beta-adrenergic receptors of muscle cells to about the same extent or greater than the powerful drugs fenoterol and salbutamol do.(5)
It’s likely due to these molecules that cocoa has been shown to make you more alert, as well.(6) What does this practically mean for you? Altogether, this means that by regularly eating cocoa, you will cut your appetite, increase your body’s potential to burn fat, and directly push fat out of your fat cells! These are all the same effects that high intensity interval training, for example, will have.
Cocoa’s Cardiovascular & Longevity Benefits
When mice were given (-)-epicatechin for 15 days, they were able to run longer before becoming completely exhausted by about 30%.(7) The human equivalent dose is just a few tablespoons of cocoa a day. The researchers found that the favanol had increased the amount of blood vessels that went to the muscles so that they muscles had a larger supply of oxygen and nutrients. Moreover, supplementation had also increased mitochondrial complexes in the cells.
Mitochondrial protein complexes for the quadriceps femoris muscle (Ex = exercised, (-)-Epi = epicatechin supplementation)
So cocoa increases both capillary density as well as mitochondrial biogenesis(7,8)… just like exercise. We also have evidence that epicatechin allows you to retain endurance gains and mitochondrial improvements during an off or inactive period(9), as well as stimulate the development of and optimization of the mitochondria(10) (see figure below from this study).
Cocoa for Cancer & Longevity
Bodybuilders are sometimes concerned with nitric oxide supplements to increase their pump in the gym because NO acts as a signalling molecule for the muscle cells to adapt.(11,12) Just six grams a day of dark chocolate for 18 weeks can elevate NO, dilate your blood vessels, and decrease your blood pressure.(13)
There are also studies supporting the notion that regularly consuming cocoa will protect your prostate against testosterone and thus protect prostate growth.(14,15) Lastly, there is one animal study showing that mice given epicatechin for 15 weeks in their water makes AMPk and SOD increase (beneficial for longevity and protection against reactive oxygen species) and makes LDL (the “bad cholesterol”) and inflammatory factors IL-1b and CRP decrease.(16)
Likely due to the above, when the “diabetic” mice were given epicatechin, they lived almost as long as healthy mice (see image below).
To sum this all up, the polyphenols and flavanols in cocoa can mimic the beneficial effects of exercise in a multitude of ways. Regularly incorporating cocoa into your diet regularly has the ability to improve your muscle gains from resistance training (and the pumps in the gym), help promote fat loss on a diet, increase your cardiovascular fitness and mitochondrial function, as well as lower your blood pressure and possibly increase your longevity!
Remember, only dark chocolate will have significant amounts of cocoa in it. Cocoa powder is 100% cocoa, and thus you will get the most amount of cocoa per calorie by using it, though it doesn’t taste as good. You can add cocoa powder to coffee. You can also add it to skim milk in a blender or shaker.(17)