Chocolate-loving runners have had a lot to celebrate in recent years. In 2011, the University of Cambridge reported that eating dark chocolate can lower rates of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease, thanks to its high concentrations of antioxidants called flavonols. The same year, a study published in The Journal of Physiology found that moderate chocolate consumption may cause muscle changes that improve athletic endurance. And a study published in 2012 discovered that people who eat chocolate frequently (at least a few times per week) weigh less than those who rarely eat it. No wonder runners go crazy for the sweet stuff!
Of course, reaping these various health benefits hinges on eating the right type and amount of chocolate. “I generally recommend having one to 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate per day or roughly one tablespoon of cocoa a day,” says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and a noted chocolate researcher. Stick with dark chocolate that’s at least 60 percent cocoa to get the highest concentration of health-boosting antioxidants, fiber, and magnesium. Unfortunately for fans of milk chocolate, its added fat and sugar content dilute the beneficial effects, says Dr. Katz.
It’s also key to stick with that one- to 1.5-ounce serving–and not eat the whole bar. One ounce packs 162 calories and 11 grams of fat; eating any more can easily put you over your daily calorie limit and lead to unwanted weight gain. To help stretch your chocolate allowance, we’ve created four good-for-you desserts that offer the benefits of dark chocolate while keeping calories and fat in check, so you can stay fit, run your best–and still satisfy that chocolate craving.
You Crave: Candy Bar
If nutty, chocolate candy bars are your go-to treat, try making homemade dark-chocolate bark. Mix chopped dried fruit (like cranberries or currants) and nuts (such as walnuts, pistachios, or almonds) into melted dark chocolate and pour into a rimmed wax paper-lined baking sheet. (Reserving a handful of the mix-ins to sprinkle over the top of the bark provides a more visually appealing treat.) Once cool, break the bark into pieces. Or make chocolate the supporting player in a crunchy dessert by dipping a banana in melted dark chocolate and rolling it in chopped nuts. “Dark chocolate and nuts are great partners,” says Monica Bearden, R.D., coauthor of Chocolate: A Healthy Passion. “Together they provide vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, protein, healthy fats, and arginine, an amino acid that works with the flavonols in chocolate to help dilate blood vessels and aid in muscle growth and repair.”
Boost It: Add dried tart cherries to the bark to provide your body with a concentrated source of antioxidants. Research also suggests that tart cherries can help reduce postworkout muscle and joint pain.
You Crave: Brownies
It’s not hard to make a brownie from scratch that’s more satisfying and nutritionally sound than your go-to boxed mix. The secret ingredient? Black beans. Typical brownies contain too much saturated fat, says Claudia Wilson, M.S., R.D., but by substituting pureed black beans for half the butter in a recipe, you can create a dessert that’s still dense and moist but higher in fiber and lower in fat. “With the rich flavor of the cocoa powder, you can’t taste the beans at all,” she says. “Just be sure to blend them in a food processor until they are completely smooth.” Don’t like black beans? Try the same trick using unsweetened applesauce or pureed prunes.
Boost It: Use whole-wheat pastry flour in place of refined, all-purpose flour to increase the fiber and nutrient content. Or try culinary nutritionist Sue Ann Gleason’s recommendation and use a mix of flours that includes buckwheat; the gluten-free grain adds an earthy, nutty flavor, and diets that contain buckwheat are linked to a lowered risk of developing both high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
You Crave: Milkshake
Classic chilly treats like milkshakes are notoriously high in saturated fat. Fortunately, you can easily lighten a milkshake by using fat-free milk or low-fat frozen yogurt in place of whole-fat dairy. Bearden makes a sweet-tooth-satisfying and protein-packed shake using fresh fruit, skim milk, vanilla-flavored whey protein, Greek yogurt, and a few tablespoons of antioxidant-rich cocoa powder. Gleason’s recipe blends together frozen bananas, raspberries, ripe pear, cocoa powder, Swiss chard, and coconut milk or coconut water. The addition of Swiss chard (or any dark, leafy greens) and coconut milk or water is particularly good for runners, since these ingredients are rich in magnesium, a mineral that may help relieve muscle cramps or muscle soreness.
Boost It: Blend a tablespoon of your favorite nut butter into the shake to add healthy fats and protein. Or add a tablespoon of omega-3–rich seeds like ground flaxseeds or chia seeds. “Chia seeds are packed with high-quality protein, antioxidants, and minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron, which help speed recovery and replenish minerals that are depleted during strenuous exercise,” says Gleason.
You Crave: Pudding
Single-serving pudding cups are actually a relatively healthy snack. But by making your own with one or two unexpected ingredients, you can create a more nutrient-dense (and dairy-free) alternative. Wilson makes a high-protein chocolate pudding by blending one 16-ounce package of firm tofu, one cup soy milk, 1/2 cup sugar (or more to taste), up to 1/2 cup cocoa, one teaspoon vanilla, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Gleason’s version ups the healthy fat and fiber with avocado. She blends 2 large peeled and pitted avocados with 1/4 cup cocoa powder, 1/4 cup pure maple syrup, and 1 1/2 teaspoons orange zest. Avocados also provide vitamins B, E, and K, and contain more potassium than a banana.
Boost It: Add spices like cinnamon to build flavor in a homemade pudding. “Anytime you are able to use spices, you are getting more antioxidants and potent phytochemicals,” says Bearden.