In six-minute walking tests, people in the cocoa group went 18.4m further at the end of the study than they did at the beginning
Drinking cocoa rich in flavonols – plant compounds also found in fruits, vegetables and tea – might make walking easier for some older adults with poor circulation, a study suggests.
Flavonol-rich dark chocolate and unprocessed cocoa, similar to unsweetened cocoa powder used for baking, have been linked to improved blood flow and increased walking ability in a small number of preliminary studies in animals and humans.
For this small study, researchers wanted to see if cocoa might benefit people with peripheral artery disease (PAD), a condition caused by hardening arteries that reduces blood flow in the legs and makes walking even short distances painful.
"Few therapies are available for improving walking performance in people with PAD," said lead study author Dr Mary McGrae McDermott of Northwestern University in Chicago.
Researchers asked 44 older adults with PAD to drink a chocolate flavored beverage three times daily for six months – half of them got flavonol-rich cocoa and half did not.
In six-minute walking tests, people in the cocoa group went 18.4m further at the end of the study than they did at the beginning. An improvement of at least 12m can make a meaningful difference in patients' daily lives, researchers note in Circulation Research.
Walking ability typically declines over time for people with PAD. Without cocoa, participants walked 24.2m less in six-minute tests at the end of the study.
Even though participants were not told whether they drank real cocoa or a substitute, it is possible they tasted the difference and that this impacted the results, said Dr Joseph Ladapo, a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles who was not involved in the study.
"Exercise is obviously not as attractive or sexy as cocoa, but it's inexpensive, more beneficial, and doesn't come with harmful calories or sugars," Ladapo said.
Most store-bought chocolate bars and hot cocoa mixes are processed to remove bitterness, which also reduces flavonols, said Samantha Heller, a nutritionist at New York University Langone Health who was not involved in the study.
"To maximize the health benefits of cocoa, you can make your own hot cocoa by using unsweetened cocoa powder," Heller said.
The Hershey Company supplied cocoa for the study and Mars Inc. contributed to the analysis.
Source: Circulation Research, published online February 14, 2020.