Nutrition

The Surprising Health Benefits of Cocoa

The Surprising Health Benefits of Cocoa

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.

Mitochondrial promoting activity of repeated ingestion of flavan-3-ols

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)

Production of cAMP by N-coumaroyldopamine and N-caffeoyldopamine via beta-2-adrenoceptors

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).

The lower image of the mitochondria has more inner folds. The more folds,  the faster that mitochondria can make energy for the cell. This means that cocoa will help increase your endurance capacity, and possibly help alleviate a chronic fatigue condition.

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).


Take-Home Message

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)


  • Gutierrez-Salmean, Gabriela et al. “Effects of (?)-Epicatechin on Molecular Modulators of Skeletal Muscle Growth and Differentiation.” The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 25.1 (2014): 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2013.09.007. PMC. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Motohashi, Norio, and Atsushi Asakura. “Muscle Satellite Cell Heterogeneity and Self-Renewal.” Frontiers in cell and developmental biology 2 (2014): 1.PMC. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.
  • Sørensen, L B, and A Astrup. “Eating Dark and Milk Chocolate: A Randomized Crossover Study of Effects on Appetite and Energy Intake.” Nutrition & Diabetes 1.12 (2011): e21–. PMC. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Watanabe, Naoki et al. “Flavan-3-Ol Fraction from Cocoa Powder Promotes Mitochondrial Biogenesis in Skeletal Muscle in Mice.” Lipids in Health and Disease 13 (2014): 64. PMC. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Park, J. B. “N-Coumaroyldopamine And N-Caffeoyldopamine Increase Camp Via Beta 2-Adrenoceptors In Myelocytic U937 Cells”. The FASEB Journal 19.6 (2005): 497-502. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Montopoli, M. et al. “The Acute Electrocortical And Blood Pressure Effects Of Chocolate”.NeuroRegulation 2.1 (2015): 3-28. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Nogueira, Leonardo et al. “(–)-Epicatechin Enhances Fatigue Resistance and Oxidative Capacity in Mouse Muscle.” The Journal of Physiology 589.Pt 18 (2011): 4615–4631. PMC. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.
  • Hüttemann M, et al. “(-)-Epicatechin Is Associated With Increased Angiogenic And Mitochondrial Signalling In The Hindlimb Of Rats Selectively Bred For Innate Low Running capacity – Pubmed – NCBI “.Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N. p., 2015. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.

  • Hüttemann, Maik, Icksoo Lee, and Moh H. Malek. “(?)-Epicatechin Maintains Endurance Training Adaptation in Mice after 14 Days of Detraining.” The FASEB Journal 26.4 (2012): 1413–1422. PMC. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.
  • Taub, Pam R. et al. “Alterations In Skeletal Muscle Indicators Of Mitochondrial Structure And Biogenesis In Patients With Type 2 Diabetes And Heart Failure: Effects Of Epicatechin Rich Cocoa”. Clinical and Translational Science 5.1 (2011): 43-47. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.

  • Dillon, E. Lichar et al. “Muscle Protein Metabolism Responds Similarly to Exogenous Amino Acids in Healthy Younger and Older Adults during NO-Induced Hyperemia.” American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 301.5 (2011): R1408–R1417. PMC. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.
  • Timmerman, Kyle L. et al. “Pharmacological Vasodilation Improves Insulin-Stimulated Muscle Protein Anabolism but Not Glucose Utilization in Older Adults.” Diabetes 59.11 (2010): 2764–2771. PMC. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.
  • Taubert, Dirk et al. “Effects Of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake On Blood Pressure And Bioactive Nitric Oxide”. JAMA 298.1 (2007): 49. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Bisson JF, Hidalgo S, Rozan P, Messaoudi M. Preventive effects of ACTICOA powder, a cocoa polyphenolic extract, on experimentally induced prostate hyperplasia in Wistar-Unilever rats. J Med Food. 2007 Dec;10(4):622-7. PubMed PMID: 18158832.
  • Bisson JF, Hidalgo S, Rozan P, Messaoudi M. Preventive effects of ACTICOA powder, a cocoa polyphenolic extract, on experimentally induced prostate hyperplasia in Wistar-Unilever rats. J Med Food. 2007 Dec;10(4):622-7. PubMed PMID: 18158832.
  • Si, Hongwei et al. “Dietary Epicatechin Promotes Survival of Obese Diabetic Mice and Drosophila Melanogaster.” The Journal of Nutrition 141.6 (2011): 1095–1100. PMC. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  • Gossai D, Lau-Cam CA. Assessment of the effect of type of dairy product and of chocolate matrix on the oral absorption of monomeric chocolate flavanols in a small animal model. Pharmazie. 2009 Mar;64(3):202-9. PubMed PMID: 19348344.


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