Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Surprising Health Benefits of Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate In White Cup And Chocolate Chips Isolated On WhiteIn the midst of winter, hot chocolate is a satisfying and soothing beverage that can warm chilled hands. Hot chocolate has been around for centuries, and considered a “drink of the Gods.” In fact, drinkable chocolate was popular long before solid chocolate, and the beverage has been prized for its healing properties for over 3000 years.

The cocoa drinking habits of the Kuna Indians offers evidence for the health benefits of cocoa. Kunas live on a group of islands off the coast of Panama and are renowned for their low prevalence of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of arteries). Their good health and high cocoa consumption (5 cups a day)  intrigued researchers, who studied their habits to find out more. As they documented in this study, Kuna who moved to the mainland and adopted new lifestyle and diet habits had higher death rates from heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and cancer than their island-dwelling counterparts.  While this type of research can’t determine cause and effect (the Kuna’s lifestlyle or overall diet -high in fish, moderate in protein, high in unrefined carbohydrates – is considered disease-protective), more rigorous evidence, described below, also points to the benefits of cocoa.

The Most Healthful Hot Chocolate

What's In Your Hot ChocolateA large body of research shows that cocoa has many heath benefits, likely due to beneficial antioxidants called flavanols that have potential disease-fighting properties.  But the hot chocolate that most people drink is likely low in cocoa flavanols.  A health-promoting cup of hot chocolate should be be rich in cocoa flavanols and not too sweet.  Many commercial hot chocolate preparations are very high in sugar and not really that chocolaty (the chocolate “flavor” is often artificial).

Make Your Own. Your best bet is to skip the prepared mixes and make your own hot chocolate.  But if you use pre-sweetened chocolate syrups or powders (e.g., Nesquik), you are likely missing out.  Even the “low sugar” varieties can be overly sweet, artificially flavored, and the cocoa that they do contain is typically processed with alkali, which reduces the flavanol content.

It’s not hard to prepare a delicious cup of hot chocoate!   Here is a great recipe for a healthful flavanol-rich hot chocolate mix!

READ  Rich Hot Chocolate

The Health Benefits of Cocoa

A large body of evidence shows that cocoa flavanols can lower blood pressure and maintain healthy blood vessel function by making blood vessels more flexible and able to expand to improve blood flow.

Because your circulatory system delivers oxygen and important nutrients throughout your body, improved blood flow has implications for a variety of diseases as explained in this review of cocoa and cardiovascular health and demonstrated in this study of patients with severe atherosclerosis.

One large European research project called FLAVIOLA focused on the health benefits of cocoa flavanols. In a recently reported FLAVIOLA randomized controlled trial, participants who consumed a cocoa-flavanol drink twice daily for 1 month improved many hallmarks of cardiovascular health, including better endothelial function, lower blood pressure, improved vascular stiffness, and decreased total and LDL cholesterol compared to a group consuming a drink with no flavanols.

Cocoa and the brain. Cocoa flavanols can also improve blood vessel function in the brain, and might help reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults, according to a randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers from Columbia University Medical Center published in Nature Neuroscience. This preliminary study found that the group drinking a cocoa drink for 3 months improved the function of a brain area important for memory and performed significantly better on memory tests than the control group. Another study found that older adults with impaired blood flow to the brain who drank 2 cups cocoa-rich hot chocolate daily for 1 month improved blood flow to working areas of the brain and improved their scores on a memory test.

Other research suggests that cocoa flavonols can benefit skin health (reduce signs of photo-aging and improve elasticity), blood lipids, and might show promise for Type 2 diabetes.

Which Chocolate Source Contains the Most Flavanols?

The fresh cocoa bean is the richest source of flavanols, and products with a high cocoa content, like cocoa powder, are typically rich in flavonols. A study of commercially-available chocolate and cocoa-containing products ranked flavanol content as follows (in decreasing order): natural cocoa powder, unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate, semisweet baking chips, milk chocolate, and chocolate syrup.

Flavanol Content Of Chocolate Products2

Dutch And Natural CocoaChoosing a Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powders vary quite a bit in terms of flavanol content.  Some are processed with alkali (i.e., Dutch-processed, also called “European style” or “alkalized”), which darkens the powder and produces a milder, darker, and less bitter cocoa.  This processing also reduces flavanol levels (to varying degrees, since the amount of processing varies among “dutched” products).  “Natural” cocoa powders are a better bet in terms of health, but you may find these more bitter.

Chocolate Zucchini Bread Closeup SmBaking with cocoa. If you bake with cocoa, the type of cocoa you use will influence the final product, since the cocoa-based recipe might depend on the acidity of natural cocoa (or another acidic ingredient in the recipe) to react with baking soda to help the product rise.  The dutching process renders the cocoa less acidic (increasing the PH of the cocoa) and you may have better luck using baking powder if you are using Dutch-processed cocoa  (you can read more about cocoa processing and baking here and here).

Cocoa for Athletes

Sheila Kealey Easterns2Because cocoa can help relax blood vessels and improve blood flow, some researchers theorize that this could help an athlete’s working muscles by improving the delivery nutrients and oxygen and removing waste products. Though this has not been extensively investigated, this small study by Penn State researchers found that a cocoa-based protein and carbohydrate drink decreased perceived soreness after exercise, and this study found that 800-meter runners who consumed a cocoa-bean extract for 14 days had less muscle damage than runners who consumed a placebo.

Another small study (reviewed here) suggests that dark chocolate might have performance benefits: in the study, volunteers consuming dark chocolate for 14 days improved their 2-minute bike time trial performance compared to those who consumed white chocolate (which does not contain flavanols), which may have to do with improvements in VO2 max.

Chocolate milk has long been a popular recovery drink for athletes, because of the carbohydrates and sugars that help replenish glycogen stores and the protein in milk that helps repair muscle damage (chocolate milk is not a significant source of cocoa flavanols). Most chocolate milk preparations are low in cocoa and contain a minimal level of flavanols; a cocoa-based preparation could potentially have a lot more to offer for athletes.

It seems that hot cocoa could be a near-perfect recovery beverage for winter athletes! And you might consider adding cocoa-rich Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites or a Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Shake to your fueling routine.

Bottom Line

  • Hot chocolate can be considered a healthy beverage, but not in the form of most popular preparations which are overly sweet and contain little cocoa. Make your own with less sugar and real cocoa (of follow my recipe, coming soon).
  • If you’re drinking hot chocolate, consider the added sugar and calories you’re adding to your diet, because if you don’t need these, their harm could outweigh any potential benefit of cocoa flavanols.
  • Flavanols are but one component of a healthy diet, so don’t go overboard on cocoa. Most plant-based foods, especially vegetables and fruits, contain an abundance of phytonutrients important for health. Your best bet is to consume plenty of different  vegetables and fruits to ensure you’re getting a wide variety of protective substances.
  • If you’re an athlete, hot cocoa could be a perfect recovery beverage after a long or hard workout: the carbohydrates and sugars help replenish glycogen stores, the protein in milk helps repair muscle damage, and the cocoa flavanols might offer additional benefits.

Recipes with Cocoa and/or Dark Chocolate

double chocolate energy bites bowl with text

Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Shake Vertical 2 Sm



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Racing Update & Skiing the Gatineau Loppet for Little Angels

Nakkertok Nordic held another extremely successful Eastern Canadian Championships last weekend.  The event is so poplar that it has grown larger than the National Cross Country ski championships, this year attracting almost 800 racers from all over Canada.

The volunteer efforts behind such an event are enormous, and range from feeding the racers to getting the trails in impeccable shape. With little snow to work with, the grooming team, led by Dirk Van Wijk (lead groomer for the Vancouver Olympics) did an outstanding job.

Individual start skate race. Jessie Williams Photo
Individual start skate race. Jessie Williams Photo

The racing included a sprint event Friday, individual start skate races Saturday, and Mass start distance races Sunday. The tricky snow conditions and technical course made for some pretty spectacular wipeouts in the mass start races!

Lead women's pack negotiates a tricky downhill. James MacLean photo
Lead women’s pack negotiates a tricky downhill. James MacLean photo.

I had a solid weekend of racing, finishing 22nd in the sprints and 15th and 16th in the distance events. If you want to see amazing pictures of some of Canada’s best skiers check out these photo albums of the event (the banner photo of me is by Patrick Haag).

Skiing the Gatineau Loppet for Little Angels

On February 28, 2016,  I’ll be competing in the Gatineau Loppet 51 km classic event.  I’m  looking forward to this spectacular point-to-point race across the beautiful trails and stunning scenery of the Gatineau Park.  I’ve done the distance event at the loppet many times – you can read about last year’s event here.

Along with some XC Ottawa teammates, I’m going to use this opportunity to help to raise funds in support of the Little Angels Blood Cancer Fund at the Ottawa Hospital.

What Is Little Angels?

The Little Angels Blood Cancer Fund provides financial support to qualified patients undergoing treatment for blood cancer at the Ottawa Hospital. The fund helps patients experiencing financial difficulty by funding non-medical expenses such as travel, accommodation, child-care, food or hospital parking.

You can help support Little Angels by sponsoring me or my team for the event by making a secure online donation at the Ottawa Hospital site at the links below.

Xc Ottawa Loppet Team 2016

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Back to Vermont for the Craftsbury Marathon

I love the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont.  After racing there at the Nensa Cup race in December,  I saw another opportunity to return and stay at the facility, eat the terrific food, and ski on their great trails – the Craftsbury Marathon at the end of January.   The enthusiasm was high and they had room, so I reserved for my husband and son as well, and my XC Ottawa teammate Megan decided to come back “en famille” too, with husband Karl, her 2-year old daughter, and Karl’s parents.

With little snow in December we were racing  on a 1 km loop, and even that was enjoyable because the tracks were expertly groomed and the event was so well planned. I raced here in December 2013, but only on the sprint course because of an ice storm that cancelled the distance event.

If I liked this venue with 1 km to ski on,  just imagine the possibilities of a marathon!

Nensa Loop
Creative 1 km loop at Craftsbury Nensa Event in December.

For the marathon, we were also skiing loops, but a nice 12.5 -km loop that offered a lot of variety in terrain. I chose to ski the 25 km event, while Megan and Karl skied the 50 km. Snow hasn’t been plentiful in Vermont this year, but snowmaking at Craftsbury once again helped organizers to produce a track with good coverage.

A Women’s Only Start! A big plus at this event is that the women racers had a dedicated start – which often isn’t the case at ski marathons, which typically have women starting with the men.  One disadvantage of starting with the men is that you can quickly lose sight and contact of your competition in the mass start melee.

We started 10 minutes after the men, and after about 4 km we were down to a pack of 3 that included my XC Ottawa teammate Megan and Isabel Caldwell (younger sister of U.S. Ski Team member Sophie Caldwell, and a former Dartmouth and Stratton Mountain School athlete). A funny thing was that there was no way to distinguish 25 km and 50 km competitors. While I knew Megan was skiing 50 km, I didn’t know what Isabel was doing. It was quite enjoyable skiing with them, and every turn was a new adventure because I didn’t know this 12.5 km loop at all. Into lap 2 I decided to pick up the pace – when Isabel stayed back with Megan I gathered she was doing the 50 km as well.

25 km Craftsbury Podium. Jim Fredericks photo.
25 km Craftsbury Podium. Jim Fredericks photo.

All in all it was a great weekend of relaxing and fun racing.  Megan raced really well and pulled away from Isabel on her final lap to win the 50 km, and Karl was second in the 50 km (Karl has a nice write-up of the weekend here). You’ll find a link to the results here.

Sunday was an opportunity explore more of the Craftsbury trails, and we were lucky enough to be led by Keith Woodward, part of their great grooming team.

You can read more about Sheila’s racing here.


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