As a member of my college’s Cross Country team, it didn’t take me long to discover the correlation between diet and athletic performance (try eating a heavy turkey dinner before banging out a 5K against D1 running machines… not the best combo.) Eating light in the form of a primarily raw diet, however, gave me the energy and competitive edge I needed to win races and achieve incredible sustained endurance.
Most recently one of the foods I’ve found to b
e a miracle pre-workout snack is raw cacao! This came about the other day when minutes before I departed for the gym, I scarfed down two large pieces of raw chocolate.
“Oh man,” I thought to myself, “this is definitely going to give me a nice bellyache half-way through my run.” Not to mention the sluggishness I thought I’d feel, believing that cacao was more of a “heavy food” (compared to something like a cucumber.)
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. To my most pleasant surprise, I found I had such incredible energy and more focus than I’d had in quite some time! As I cranked out a very productive workout, I thought about how valued cacao was in ancient Central and South American cultures, and that’s when it all started making good sense to me.
When I was through, I decided to do a little investigating on cacao’s positive impact on athletic performance. Here’s what I found: (Oh, and I started all my research old school – at the actual library, baby! But also found some cool articles online about cacao as a food for athletes.)
First and foremost, let me say this: the first thing I learned is that chocolate is truly a “food of the gods”! In their book The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael D. Coe explain how cacao comes from the tree Theobroma Cacao. It was dubbed this majestic name in 1753 by 18thcentury Swedish scientist Carl von Linne. The second unit of the binomial (theobroma) is from the Greek and literally means “food of the gods.” Cacao, I found, was chosen for it’s barbaric resonance (makes sense since it later would spark some rather tempestuous behavior amongst its ancient consumers.)
Apparently, this bean was so valuable to the early natives of Central and Southern American cultures, they used it as their currency (one bean for a large tomato, 100 for a large turkey hen.) So, if to entire cultures this food was literally edible gold, there must have been some astronomical benefit to consuming it, right? But what could that have been? And could it have had anything to do with the extreme energy and enhanced mood I experienced every time I ate it? I think yes!
The Olmecs, members of the earliest American high civilization, were the first group of people to harvest wild cacao pods that they used to make into a chocolate drink. Shortly after, the Maya began cultivating the plant in the Yucatan Peninsula. Next the Toltecs, then the Aztecs, until eventually it was happed upon by the Spanish Conquistadors. But these guys weren’t indulging in creamy truffles and chocolate bars – they were gulping the stuff down in liquid form in a drink they would create using cacao powder mixed with water which was sometimes sweetened, sometimes flavored with various spices.
The most extensive medical study of chocolate was conducted by French dr. Herve Robert. In it, he found a slew of mood altering and enhancing chemicals that occur naturally in cacao. Caffiene, theobromine (similar to caffeine), serotonin (a mood lifting hormone), and phenylethylamine (a mood changing brain chemical similar to dopamine and adrenalin) are some of the chemicals in chocolate that create an anti-depressive and stimulatory effect.
So I originally started off believing that it must be the caffeine in chocolate providing me with that clean, intense energy burst I had experienced at the gym. But after reading a few books on the history of chocolate (and a very interesting one indeed!) I learned that it is in fact a constituent known as “theobromine,” an alkaloid structurally similar to that of caffeine, that occurs in greater quantities in cacao and that acts as a stimulant and promotes strength, endurance, and enhanced mood.
In Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K Bealer’s book The World of Caffeine, it’s stated,“(Aztecs) only nobility and warriors had the opportunity to partake of it. Although they knew nothing of theobromine’s physical and mental stimulating powers, the Aztecs were convinced that chocolate imparted both strength and inspiration from Quetzecoatl, and it was chiefly owing to its pharmalogical powers that cacao was highly esteemed.”
One of the earliest surviving accounts of the traditional method of creating chocolate from cacao beans was recounted by a European man who had recently returned to Venice after an American expedition in the company of Cortes. He explained how the natives created a chocolate drink with fortifying powers by pouring it from vase to vase and letting it foam (kinda like a cappuccino from what I gathered).
He goes on to explain: “This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”
In a publication simply entitled Chocolate, Marcia and Fredric Morton provide a statement further supporting evidence of cacao’s use for its endurance enhancing qualities: “Finally – and probably of most importance to the war-minded, empire building Aztecs – chocolate was so certain to confer vigor and strength that in early times it was reserved for rulers and soldiers.”
So there you have it. Cacao really is a food of the gods and of the athletes. Now before you grab your yoga mat and head off to sweat it out at a Bikram session or throw on your Asics to pound pavement, do as the Mayans and Aztecs and Conquistadors did; have some chocolate!!!
By Amelia Cahilane