Can dark chocolate beat the mid-afternoon slump?

Finished dark chocolate is shown atop cacao beans at the TCHO chocolate factory in San Francisco, Calif., Monday, Aug. 25, 2008. Source: (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Feeling flat? Next time, consider reaching for a square of dark chocolate.

It’s 3pm and 41-year-old credit manager Rachel Leach is thinking about popping out of her Sydney office for a cup of tea and a donut. She’s starting to feel tired and finding it hard to focus. 

Leach is experiencing the infamous ‘mid afternoon slump’, a daily energy dip that challenges office workers and stay at home parents alike.  A sugar or caffeine hit seems like the obvious antidote, but is it really the best way to go? 

While many of us reach for sugary snacks or caffeinated drinks to beat the mid afternoon slump, a new study from the US suggests that a serving of dark chocolate might be a better option. 

The study, carried out by scientists from Northern Arizona University, found that eating dark chocolate can improve our attention span. 

Researchers compared a group of participants eating a 20g piece of 60 per cent cocoa chocolate with five control groups (including a group that just had a drink of water). An electroencephalograph (EEG) was taken before and 60 minutes after having the chocolate (or chocolate substitute), along with blood pressure and a mood assessment. 

The EEG’s showed that after eating the chocolate, the participant’s brains were more alert and attentive. But while it sounds like great news for chocolate lovers, does it work outside of the lab? 

I asked Rachel Leach to try swapping her afternoon cuppa and donut for a couple of squares of dark chocolate for a week, to see if she noticed a difference in her afternoon energy levels. 

She tells me that while dark chocolate didn’t completely cure the mid afternoon slump, it was a good ‘pick me up’.

“The chocolate definitely gave me a bit of a buzz and lifted my mood and focus,” she says. 

However, it wasn’t just the physiological effect of the chocolate that helped Leach battle past 3pm.

“It gave me something to look forward to in the afternoon, a little treat,” she says.  

Catherine Saxelby, an accredited nutritionist, dietitian and author of best-selling Nutrition for Life says that there are some well researched benefits of chocolate, such as reducing blood pressure and lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke. But she warns that these benefits do not apply to milk chocolate. “It has to be dark chocolate, 70 percent cocoa and above,” she explains. 

Saxelby also cautions that because of the comforting effect of chocolate, it could be hard for people to limit themselves to just 20g. “It’s very easy to over-consume, once you’ve had a little bit you often want to have more,” she warns. 

This could be a problem for some of us. It is worth noting that even 50g of dark chocolate a day equates to an extra 7,326.9 kilojoules a week. This could easily tip the balance when it comes to weighing up the health benefits of chocolate with the unwanted side effects that come from eating it.

To avoid accidently overeating, Saxelby suggests buying a pack of smaller, portion controlled chocolate bars rather than the 100g large bars.  Another option is to take cocoa powder as a drink mixed with hot water or milk, which can be sweetened with honey or stevia.

Of course, when it comes to surviving the mid afternoon slump, chocolate isn’t the be all and end all. According to Saxelby the most important factor isn’t what you have at 3pm, it’s what you have for lunch.

“Make sure you include protein and a low GI (Glycemic Index) carbohydrate which will take longer to be absorbed into the body. Chicken, tuna or eggs with brown rice, whole meal bread or al dente pasta are good options. You could also try adding a can of chickpeas or some lentil soup,” she suggests.

Fresh air and exercise also play a big role in maintaining our energy levels. Saxelby suggests getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine can provide a natural boost that will see us through the afternoon. Some light exercise will also do wonders. “If you can get out the office and go for a jog or a swim you will come back feeling very invigorated,” she says.

And if all else fails, you could simply surrender. If you can’t beat the mid afternoon slump, you could metaphorically join it – and take a nap. 

Catherine Rodie is a freelance writer from Sydney. You can follow her on Twitter @catherinerodie.

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