First domesticated by the Mayans over 2,000 years ago, cacao is one of the most nutritionally complex foods on earth.
Cacao is the main ingredient in dark chocolate. The word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans.
The word cacao means “food of the gods.” It is aptly named, as cacao offers a myriad of health benefits. Raw cacao has historically been used as medicine, and was so revered, that the beans were used as currency. Although, not typically considered a sports performance food, raw cacao is definitely one superfood that athletes should consider adding to their regimen, because it delivers on so many levels.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing the whole beans, which keeps all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and more unharmed. Because cocoa powder is heated and processed, it does not retain as many nutrients as the raw cacao has. So the raw cacao is superior nutritionally over cocoa. I like the brand Sunfood. They offer cacao powder, whole beans, paste, and nibs – which tastes nutty and chocolate (delicious as a topping – like in this Pumpkin Cacao Chip Smoothie)! When choosing chocolates, look for the highest percentage of cacao, which means it contains more of the cacao, and less sugar – if you can find chocolate made with raw cacao, even better.
Raw cacao has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score of 95,500 per 100 grams, making it one of the best sources of antioxidants, which is helpful in preventing and repairing free radical damage. Exercising increases the formation of free radicals, so a diet high in antioxidants is important for athletes. There is also evidence that diets high in antioxidants could offer protection against many different diseases.
Cacao is also one of the best food-known sources of magnesium, which has been shown in studies to be very important for athletes and heart health. Magnesium is required for over 300 enzymatic reactions, including the synthesis of fat, protein and nucleic acids, muscular contraction and relaxation, cardiac health and bone building. Magnesium improves blood flow and plays a key role in the metabolism of adenosine triphoshate (ATP), critical for aerobic and anaerobic functions.
Low magnesium levels raise our risk of heart attack and stroke, and could be to blame in cases of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. It if estimated that most Americans do not get sufficient magnesium levels, and athletes could have more serious deficiencies since exercising further depletes levels. The following symptoms can be an indicator of low magnesium levels: muscle cramping, migraines or headaches, restless leg syndrome, twitching, heart disease, and anxiety. If you do choose to supplement instead of eating raw cacao – look for the citrate, orotate, or malate forms of magnesium (not oxide which is poorly absorbed). If the magnesium causes loose stools, make sure to reduce the dose.
Because of the antioxidant capacity and magnesium levels, it should come as no surprise that a recent study published in the Journal of Physiology found that cacao may help bolster exercise endurance. Cacao is also rich in other important nutrients for athletes including potassium, iron and more. Cacao offers a long list of health benefits including reducing heart attack and stroke, lowering blood pressure, boosting mood and brain function, lowering stress, relaxing muscles, boosting our skin’s internal SPF, and much more.
Try this Choco-Banana Super Smoothie – which contains raw cacao and 5 other Superfoods!! Don’t have time to make that? grab a delicious dairy-raw raw cacao Rau drink to go!!
Boosts Blood Flow to Heart, Brain, and Ahem…Other Organs
Raw cacao is also a food to consider in the fight against heart disease and Alzheimers – cacao has been shown in studies to improve blood flow to all organs in the body. It also has been found in studies to reduce dementia, and even improve the brain’s ability to perform math problems. Cacao has a protective effects on endothelial function, important for heart health. So having a square of dark chocolate or a couple of tablespoons of raw cacao daily is actually very good for you, and could even help to prevent heart attack and stroke. Plus, unlike Viagra, which improves blood flow to one region, the flavinols in cacao improve blood flow throughout the body – including to the same organ that Viagra targets! In addition, cacao contains a compound called threobromine, which has powerful mood-enhancing qualities, and also is a mild diuretic. Dogs can not metabolize theobromine, which is why it can be toxic to dogs.
Read Sara’s article 15 Superfoods for Peak Performance to learn more about how athletes can benefit from other superfoods. Also sign up to download Sara’s free Cooking with Superfoods eBook to get some superfood recipes. Sara offers nutritional counseling, and also eCourses – Sara’s popular 1 week Break up with Sugar Program eCourse is coming up on Feb 5th – it is an online program that you can take in 1 week, or at your own pace.
Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.
©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.
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