Sweet Indulgences

Each time you gulp a cup of coffee, sip a glass of red wine or
nibble on some dark chocolate, not only does your mouth smile, your
heart does, too.
Each time you gulp a cup of coffee, sip a glass of red wine or nibble on some dark chocolate, not only does your mouth smile, your heart does, too.

For years, millions of health-conscious Americans diligently avoided the three foods, thinking they were doing their bodies a favor. But research has shown that consuming the delights – in moderate amounts, of course – may yield health benefits, most notably keeping a healthy heart.

Red wine

The red skin of grapes used to produce red wine is high in antioxidants, also known as

flavonoids, which help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in three ways, according to research conducted by the University of California, Davis.

First, flavonoids reduce the production of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, commonly referred to as bad cholesterol.

Second, flavonoids boost high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, also known as good cholesterol. And third, they reduce blood clotting. In one of the university’s studies, men who drank wine three to four days a week were 30 percent less likely to get heart disease than men who drank wine one day per week or less.

After testing a variety of wines to determine which had the highest concentration of flavonoids, researchers found cabernet sauvignon, petit syrah and pinot noir had the most, and merlots and red zinfandels had less.

White wine had significantly smaller amounts of flavonoids, leading researchers to a general rule: The sweeter-tasting the wine, the fewer the flavonoids.

Jennifer Zapata, a registered dietitian at Hollister’s Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital, said studies have shown that it’s not just red wine that may decrease the risk of heart disease, but any form of alcohol. One word of caution, however: All alcohol should be consumed in reasonable amounts.

“The thing is, you have to define what is moderate,” Zapata said.

The American Heart Association defines moderate as one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is considered a 12-ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.

The specific substance found in the antioxidants of the skin of red grapes, called resveratol, also may inhibit tumor development in some cancers, Zapata said. However, because resveratol is in red grapes, the accompanying alcohol in red wine isn’t necessary – and it might cause weight gain from alcohol’s empty calories.

“You can get a lot of the same health benefits (as red wine) by drinking red grape juice,” Zapata said.

Janine Kaloczy, events coordinator for Gilroy’s Fortino Winery, said a fair amount of visitors inquire about the health properties of red wine.

“People do ask about it,” she said. “I’ve heard people commenting that they drink white wine, but their doctors say they need to switch to red wine because it’s better for you. … I also notice a lot of older people asking about it who are starting to worry more about their the health of the heart.”

If you already drink alcohol regularly, switching to red wine is a heart-healthier option, Zapata said. But if you don’t drink on a regular basis, it’s best not to start.

Dark chocolate

The beribboned box filled with creamy confections has long been a source of delightful guilt. No more, according to experts at the 2004 Cocoa Symposium, held in Washington and sponsored by the University of California, Santa Cruz, UC Davis, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Mars Inc., the candy manufacturer.

The symposium featured several studies conducted on the health benefits of dark chocolate, whose main ingredient – cocoa – contains high levels of flavanols. Like the antioxidants found in red wine, scientists believe flavanols help ward off cancer and also boosts cardiovascular health by improving the elasticity of blood vessels. Eating dark chocolate also can lift your mood by releasing endorphins.

In addition to flavanols, cocoa contains magnesium, iron, zinc and copper. However, dark chocolate’s milk and white counterparts don’t share the same health benefits, said Karmen Paley-Blount, a clinical dietitian at Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy.

“There’s a particular kind of fat in dark or bittersweet chocolate that doesn’t behave the same way as the fat in milk chocolate or white chocolate, which can cause an increase in bad cholesterol levels,” she said. “So if you’re going to have chocolate, dark is a better choice.”

Dark chocolate also has less saturated fat than white or milk chocolate because it’s not made with milk, and because it has less added sweeteners, dark chocolate is less likely to induce cravings for more sweet food, Zapata said.

Even so, dark chocolate still contains a significant amount of calories – about 85 to 110 per ounce. So before popping a box of truffles in the assumption you’re being healthy, consider how much chocolate you should be consuming, the dietitians said.

“We’re not talking the whole candy bar here,” Paley-Blount said. “It’s more like an ounce a day, and that’s hard for some people to do.”

Coffee

For years, that cup o’ Joe was blamed for causing jitters and headaches. But after analyzing 126,000 people for as long as 18 years, researches at Harvard University concluded that drinking one to three cups of caffeinated coffee daily could reduce the risk of diabetes – up to 54 percent for men and 30 percent for women.

Six of the studies showed that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80 percent less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. Other research indicated that drinking at least two cups daily could mean a 25-percent-reduced risk of colon cancer and nearly half the risk of gallstones.

“It’s been up in the air for a long time if coffee is harmful and how much you should drink,” Zapata said. “There was a concern that the caffeine might impact blood pressure and possibly increase the risk of heart failure. But moderate amounts are OK, unless your doctor has told you otherwise.”

The not-so-secret ingredient, the studies said, is caffeine, which stimulates the brain and nervous system. An average cup of coffee contains between 100 and 150 milligrams of caffeine, while green tea – which experts say has more health benefits than coffee – contains about 30 milligrams, and black tea contains between 40 and 50 milligrams.

If given a choice between tea and coffee, go for the tea, Zapata said, as it has the same antioxidants present in red wine and chocolate. If you do drink coffee regularly, keep your intake to about one to two cups per day. But as with red wine, the dietitians said, if you don’t drink coffee regularly, don’t start. High amounts of caffeine – no matter where it comes from – acts as a diuretic, which causes the body to eliminate waste quickly. When waste is removed too quickly, valuable nutrients such as calcium and potassium can be lost.

“A lot of people don’t get enough liquids as it is,” Paley-Blount said.

Although red wine, dark chocolate and coffee do have certain health benefits, they aren’t prime sources of nutrition, the dietitians said. If you’re in search of antioxidants, opt for antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, blueberries and spinach. Or, eat more food products made with soy, such as soy milk, tofu and soy-based yogurt.

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