By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD
The holidays are nearly upon us. With them comes an abundance of delicious high calorie foods like chocolate. Usually thought of as the classic high calorie junk food, you’ll be happy to hear that chocolate actually has some health benefits.
Can dancers enjoy chocolate and still look great in tights?
Certainly! Chocolate can be a part of an overall healthy diet. Here’s how and why:
Chocolate, like many plant based foods, is packed with health promoting flavonoids1. The cocoa beans come from the pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao). They are harvested from the pods, fermented, dried, and then sold for processing into the many yummy products we have come to love. It takes over 400 beans to make only one pound of chocolate. Given the high global demand, you can imagine what a difference it can make to buy sustainably sourced and fair traded chocolate2.
The flavonols in dark chocolate have real science to back up the health claims. A review article that analyzed data from 1297 participants found that cocoa improved insulin resistance, improved the flow rate of blood in the cardiovascular system, and showed a beneficial effect on LDL cholesterol3 (the bad kind). Another review reported that multiple studies showed lowered blood pressure and improved cholesterol in spite of the fact that chocolate contains fat and sugar 4. The studies that showed health promoting results were consistently completed with participants eating high quality cocoa or dark chocolate, not milk chocolate or a low quality chocolate flavoring that is mostly sugar or worse – corn syrup. So your source of chocolate matters!
Since chocolate can be a significant source of fat and sugar, how can it be a part of a healthy dancers diet?
According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, women who were in a trial to lose weight who included a dark chocolate snack in their meal plan still lost weight and showed improvements in body composition5. The researchers suggested that having a small amount of chocolate was associated with better satisfaction and thus the participants were able to stick to their dietary plans5.
Many dancers don’t need to lose weight, but just maintain their instrument. Occasionally eating quality chocolate, in moderation, isn’t going to cause significant weight change. Certainly dancers want to watch their sources of sugar, and be mindful of where extra calories come from, but you still can get positive health effects from just moderate consumption of chocolate. Since dancers need to choose their calories wisely, they will be happy to know that the benefits to the cardiovascular system were demonstrated regardless of dose3. Which means that a little bit of good quality chocolate eaten semi-regularly can still give health benefits. If you love chocolate and can’t even think about giving it up just to look great on stage, that’s fine! The body can handle small amounts of extra treat calories if eaten between meals and if dancers make smart choices about where the other daily calories come from. If you allow yourself to eat just a little chocolate on occasion, you are much less likely to binge later.
While some studies have shown heart health benefits, chocolate like other holiday favorites, should still be enjoyed in moderation. Flavonoids can also be found in foods like grapes, apples and blueberries – there are plenty of other great sources of these health promoting polyphenols. If most of the time you eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and veggies, then a little dark chocolate can be a part of your Nutcracker survival plan.
Wishing you healthy holidays from Emily at the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles, Atlanta.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.dancernutrition.com
1. Bauer S, et al. Cocoa consumption, cocoa flavonoids, and effects on cardiovascular risk factors: an evidence-based review. Current Cardiovas Risk Reports. 2011;5:120-127.
2. The Rainforest Alliance. www.rainforest-alliance.org
3. Hooper L, Kay C, Abdelhamid A, Kroon PA, Cohn JS, Rimm EB, Cassidy A. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar;95(3):740-51. Epub 2012 Feb 1.
4. Tokede OA, Gaziano JM, Djoussé L. Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: a meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011. Aug;65(8):879-86. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2011.64.
5. Piehowski KE, et al. A reduced calorie dietary pattern including a daily sweet snack promotes body weight reduction and body composition improvements in premenopausal women who are overweight or obese: a pilot study. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111:1198-1203.
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