Eating chocolate, or drinking it swirled into milk, has a reputation for helping people recover from a tough workout. Cocoa contains antioxidants as well as a nutrient called epicatechin, which is thought to help widen blood vessels and increase blood flow, an important aspect of health and recovery.
But eating chocolate for better fitness might just be too good to be true; there doesn’t seem to be much that’s special about chocolate as an exercise recovery tool.
The advice to eat or drink chocolate for better fitness came from a 2006 study, where researchers claimed that chocolate milk worked even better than some popular sports drinks as a post-workout recovery aid. However, the study was only done in nine men and was funded in part by the Dairy and Nutrition Council, Inc.
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More recent research has not turned up much proof that chocolate in any form is helpful. In 2015, a study suggested that cyclists performed better when they ate about one and a half squares of dark chocolate per day for two weeks. Headlines like “Chocolate Can Boost Your Workout. Really.”praised the findings. But the study only looked at eight cyclists, and rather than comparing the bikers eating chocolate to bikers who ate no chocolate, half of the cyclists ate dark chocolate and half ate white chocolate. The lack of a control group and the study’s small size makes the findings, while tantalizing, not especially strong. Scientists also do not know the amount of epicatechin a person needs to eat to get a benefit, but the amount found in chocolate may not be enough.
What nutrition experts do know, however, is that the best snack to have after a workout is one that combines carbohydrates and protein. “Your muscles need a bit of protein to build and repair, and you need carbs to refuel and replace depleted muscle glycogen,” or sugar, says Nancy Clark, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine with a private sports nutrition practice in the Boston area. Chocolate milk does fit the bill: one cup of milk contains around eight grams of protein, and chocolate provides sugar, a carb. But so do a lot of other foods. “It’s not the chocolate so much,” says Clark. “You could have strawberry milk, or milk and a banana.”
Other recommended recovery foods include a bagel and yogurt, chicken, rice and vegetables or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Clark says. If you like the taste of chocolate or chocolate milk, enjoy it in moderation. But it’s not the only option—and certainly not the healthiest—for a post-workout snack.