This is not a drill. Cacao power is here to stay.

New research shows that chocolate consumption among Aussies is on the rise with almost 70 per cent of us treating ourselves once a week. But our favourite ever research? The one that tells us chocolate boasts impressive health benefits. We’re talking about good-quality dark and raw chocolate, though, with a high cocoa content, rather than mass-produced bars (which are usually full of sweeteners and low levels of cocoa).

The main reason the dark stuff has earned (pardon our pun) brownie points is down to its star ingredient cocoa or cacao. According to the ORAC Scale (a US database listing the antioxidant capacity of foods), cocoa contains more antioxidants than superfoods such as blueberries and raspberries. “Commercially, ‘cacao’ refers to chocolate in its raw-bean or cold-pressed form, with ‘cocoa powder’ its roasted derivative,” says nutritionist Angelique Panagos.

Opt for chocolate with at least 70 per cent cocoa (the fewer additives the better), and stick to 15g of raw or bitter dark chocolate daily to reap the benefits without any risk of weight gain or blood sugar dips. Now, about those perks…

Want to crank up your gym session? Swap that afternoon bicky for dark chocolate. Scientists at Kingston University in the UK proved it helps improve endurance and performance, thanks to a phytonutrient called epicatechin in cocoa. Epicatechin boosts energy levels and enhances the production of nitric oxide in blood vessels, which improves blood flow, helping your body use oxygen more efficiently. In the study, cyclists who ate 40g of dark chocolate daily for two weeks could cycle further and harder using less effort.

Here’s why so many of us crave treats during our periods: “Cocoa can increase the release of endorphins, which reduce your perception of pain, so your menstrual cramps feel more manageable,” says Panagos. Chocolate is also a source of magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant. The recommended dietary intake for magnesium is 320mg per day, so if you battle PMS every month, try nibbling on a few squares of dark or raw chocolate.

Don’t feel guilty about indulging in choc when you’re down – it’s proven to make you feel better. “Cocoa is high in tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter of happiness and positive mood,” Panagos says. The raw version also contains phenylethylamine, a compound that creates that fuzzy love feeling. Grate some on your porridge, snack on raw cacao nibs when cravings strike, or whisk together 4 tbs chia seeds, 250ml coconut milk, 1 tsp raw cacao powder, 1 tsp honey and a pinch of cinnamon for a delish treat.

Yep, cocoa could make you brainier! UK researchers from Northumbria University found that brain performance was enhanced when study participants drank a hot cocoa drink containing 500mg of antioxidant avanols. “Flavanols work in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus, as well as reducing neuro-inflammation,” explains Panagos. Some experts say eating dark chocolate once a week is enough to improve cognitive performance.

If wrinkle-free skin is high on your beauty wish list, choc could help here, too. “Cocoa comes bursting with phenolic antioxidants. These are the compounds that help ght cellular and oxidative damage and keep us healthy and youthful,” says Panagos. Research published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology shows that bitter dark or raw chocolate rich in avanols helps protect skin from harmful UV damage, reduces premature ageing and minimises blemishes, such as sun spots.

Satisfying your cocoa craving might show your cardiovascular health some love, thanks to the high avonoid content. “Flavonoids promote heart health by helping boost circulation, improving blood flow to the heart and reducing blood pressure,” says Panagos. We can think of tougher ways to look after your ticker…

This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Women’s Fitness.

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