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It’s no secret these days that dark chocolate offers a variety of health-enhancing benefits: It’s an antioxidant powerhouse that helps reduce blood pressure while improving cholesterol and insulin sensitivity. Now research shows it may also boost athletic performance.

According to a 2014 study by Kingston University London, cyclists who ate 46 grams of dark chocolate daily for two weeks showed a 21 percent increase in their ability to bike farther and harder.

Study coauthor Owen Spendiff, PhD, theorizes that eating dark chocolate spurs development of nitric oxide, which helps the thin layer of cells inside our blood vessels and arteries remain flexible.

When blood vessels and arteries widen, they allow more blood to flow, sending more oxygen to muscles so they can keep working hard.

What makes dark chocolate so powerful? Chocolate comes from cacao, a plant packed with potent micronutrients called flavanols. The Kingston research zeroed in on one flavanol, (-)-epicatechin, and its role in keeping blood vessels expanded, to support healthy circulation. (Flavanols are also found in tea, grapes, wine, apples, and lentils.)

As a rule of thumb, the higher the percentage of cocoa in chocolate, the more flavanols it has.

Kingston researchers suggest opting for dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cocoa to make the most of its performance-boosting perks.

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