Healthy Indulgences – the benefits of dark chocolate and red wine

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We think of ‘indulgences’ as extravagant, gluttonous, unrequired… but that’s not necessarily true.

Studies show that indulging yourself as little as once per week can have huge health benefits – mood, irritability, binge eating resistance, and the ability to complete tasks.

The benefits of dark chocolate and red wine can be significant, and it all starts with their high level of polyphenol antioxidants.

“Antioxidants are really like little bodyguards inside your body that protect your cells from disease” –Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD, New York Times bestselling author and sports nutrition consultant for the Yankees

One glass (150mL/5oz) of red wine contains the same amount of flavonoid polyphenols as four squares (40g/1.4oz) of 70% chocolate. Other foods with a high flavonoid content include teas and herbs, onions, berries (including the super-fruit acai), bananas, citrus fruits, and Ginkgo biloba.

Plants, containing flavonoids, have been traditionally used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years. Western medicine is recently discovering the beneficial effects of flavonoids, but the good news is you can easily (and deliciously) incorporate them into your diet!

They’re potent antioxidants, and their effect on your enzymes can cause protective and therapeutic benefits in cancer prevention, cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, diabetic, immune system, inflammatory, IBS, and agerelated diseases.

Resveratrol, a non-flavonoid polyphenol, found in red wine, has been shown to reduce metabolic syndrome – a collection of diseases, including obesity, increased diabetes risk, and high blood pressure.

Resveratrol may also protect your:

That’s right. Indulging in wine and chocolate is good for you!

 

How do I make sure I’m getting the health benefits of wine?

As with any food, a lot depends on from where it came, how it’s processed, and what other ingredients it contains. Wine is no different.

“If you were to have a glass of wine with dinner, you may want to consider a glass of red,” said Chrisandra Shufelt, MD, assistant director of the Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.

If you’ve seen articles damning wine for its heavy metal content, here’s the deal.

The hysterical, mainstream media attacked the California wine industry, in 2015, over a since-retracted lawsuit. It claimed arsenic levels in wine should be comparable to water – 50 parts per billion.

The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement, saying, “While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits.”

50ppb is far less than that found in brown rice, seaweed, and almonds. If people drank as much wine as water, they would die from liver disease far sooner than arsenic poisoning.

If you really want to jump on the media bandwagon, however, you can minimize your heavy metal intake from wine by passing it through a Brita filter to remove heavy metals.

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What about red wine headaches?

Sulfites commonly get the blame, but they occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables (especially cabbage and broccoli), are considered safe (but still require labelling) by the FDA, and are used in wine production as a preservative.

Added in higher percentages than naturally occurs in grapes, they prevent over-fermentation, bacterial growth, and oxidization. According to Madeleine Puckett of Wine Folly, the real perpetrators of red wine headaches are dehydration (caused by alcohol’s diuretic properties) and histamines (naturally found in all fermented foods).

Estimates vary widely, but between 0.05% and 1% of the American population may be sulfite sensitive, with slightly higher numbers among asthmatics.

If you’re allergic to sulfites, chances are, you are allergic to other foods as well, including baked goods, olives, and shrimp. If these things affect you, avoid them, and stick with organic wines, which don’t contain added sulfites. If not, your problem probably is with amines.

There are two kinds of amines:
  • Tyramines, which constrict blood vessels in the brain
  • Histamines, which dilate them

Both can cause headaches associated with wine. Migraine-sufferers can be very sensitive to tyramines, but for most people, they’re not an issue. They’re naturally found in aged cheese, yogurt, avocado, and fruits.

Approximately 1% of the population is histamine intolerant; symptoms range from hay fever to IBS. Fortunately, an over-the-counter antihistamine can be an easy way to ensure enjoyment.

Most people think about the simple sugars in beer or liquor mixers. Red wine still contains sugar, but less than other drinks. Red wine averages 25kcal/oz, with sugar content depending on the type of grapes.

Some fitness blogs claim wine makes you fat.

However, scientific research fails to back that up. Interestingly, a study by Purdue University has found a compound in red wine that blocks adipogenesis – the growth of fat cells.

“Piceatannol actually alters… gene functions and insulin action during adipogenesis, the process in which early stage fat cells become mature fat cells,” said lead researcher Kee-Hong Kim. “In the presence of piceatannol, you can see delay or complete inhibition of adipogenesis.”

Encouraging research from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has found a decrease in risk factors for breast cancer because of moderate red wine consumption.

“There are chemicals in red grape skin and red grape seeds that are not found in white grapes that may decrease breast cancer risk,” said Braunstein, vice president for Clinical Innovation and the James R. Klinenberg, MD, Chair in Medicine, and one of the study’s co-authors.

Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this one. A conflicting study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that light to moderate alcohol consumption increased breast cancer risk.

A long-term study by the Olomouc University Hospital, Czech Republic, comparing red wine consumption and cardiovascular disease, found wine reduces the risk of narrowed arteries from cholesterol-containing plaques or atherosclerosis. Professor Milos Taborsky, lead researcher, points out, “We found that moderate wine drinking was only protective in people who exercised.

In this group, HDL (good cholesterol) increased, and LDL (bad cholesterol) decreased significantly.

So working out twice a week increases the benefits from wine? Ok!

The American Heart Association and Center for Disease Control recommend limiting to one 150mL/5oz drink per day – which will certainly reap the benefits of red wine.

Remember, most modern wine glasses hold much more than this! A larger plate or glass results in an unconscious 31% larger portion size and skews what you perceive as an ‘appropriate serving’.

 

How on earth is chocolate good for me?

The suggestion it may be good for you sounds silly, right?

If you avoid the sugar, additives, and unhealthy fats in commercial, cheap candy products, chocolate has great health benefits!

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao plant. They’re bitter and must be fermented, dried, and roasted before being shelled and ground into cocoa mass. This can then be separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Quality chocolate contains cocoa powder or liquor (cocoa mass in dried or liquid form), extra cocoa butter, and sugar. Milk, extra sugar, and other fats can be added to make milk chocolate.

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Chocolate has been used medicinally for thousands of years. The Mayans and Aztecs used it to treat everything from stomach aches to bronchitis and giving strength to warriors. In 2009, 7.2 million tons of chocolate products were devoured worldwide.

Cocoa contains high amounts of a flavonoid, called epicatechin, which has been shown to improve blood flow and cardiac health.

Another type of flavonoid, proanthocyanidins, are found in both cocoa and red wine.

These can:

The recently lauded paper from the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS) found chocolate intake was related to increased cognitive function, making you healthier and smarter!

“We found that people who eat chocolate at least once a week tend to perform better cognitively,” says psychologist Merrill Elias, founder of the MSLS project. “It’s significant – it touches a number of cognitive domains.”

Of all the chocolate consumed in the USA each year, only 35% is dark, containing over 70% cocoa.

The rest is milk or white chocolate, and this is where the problem lies.

These candies contain huge amounts of unsaturated and hydrogenated fat, sugar, and other sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup and aspartame. These other ingredients make them bad for you, outweighing any benefits from the small percentage of cocoa they also contain.

Dark chocolate rarely contains added unsaturated ‘bad’ fats or anywhere near as much sugar.

The other thing to look for is additives – PGPR (a cheap filler used to replace cocoa butter), carcinogenic carrageenan, preservatives, and vanillin (cheap, imitation vanilla flavor). These are used to reduce production costs and extend shelf life, often to the detriment of taste and negating chocolate’s healthful benefits.

A cocoa content of 70% appears to be the magic number for chocolate’s health benefits.

As the cocoa content increases, the ratio of cocoa butter and sugar decreases, resulting in a brittle, bitter product. Eating chocolate with between 70 and 80% cocoa minimizes your sugar intake and maximizes flavonoids, without becoming unpalatable.

As well as flavonoids, chocolate also contains caffeine and minerals, including magnesium and theobromine, an alkaloid substance used to treat high blood pressure and cardiac disease, which has also shown an interesting use in oral health.

 

Indulgences in intense doses – quantity and quality

To get the most from wine and chocolate, the key word is quality.

Look for quality chocolate and avoid the additives. Equal Exchange, Green and Black’s, Theo, Endangered Species, and Divine are brands to look for. They’re fair trade, responsibly farmed, and organic!

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Responsible farming of grapes is also important. America produces some excellent wines, and drinking those instead of cheap ‘two buck chuck’ is essential for sustaining the industry.

Put your money where your mouth is – literally. I’m not saying buy expensive wine, but step it up from the commercial, mass produced $3 bottles to a $10 bottle, produced by an actual vineyard, instead of a corporation.

These wines are better quality, meaning you avoid additives, preservatives, and colorants, while getting an intense dose of polyphenols.

Good for you and good for the planet!

 

So, what’s the answer?

If you feel like you’re ‘cheating’, even after reading this article, you may want to consider rethinking your eating habits.

Studies show that overly strict diets are linked to eating disorder behaviors, are harder to maintain than moderate and healthy lifestyle choices, and have negative effects on mental health.

Cravings are a legitimate issue.

A study by the Monell Chemical Senses Center, using MRI imaging, demonstrated people visualising their ‘craved’ food showed heightened activity in the hippocampus, inula, and caudate, the three areas of the brain associated with drug addiction.

Restricting your diet to exclude your ‘craving’ foods can cause you to binge and even make you depressed.

“When you cut something out of your diet, you’re more likely to overeat it when you do encounter it,” says Janet Polivy, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Toronto.

 

How does a daily dose of chocolate or wine help?

By moderately ‘indulging’ yourself, you’re staving off the cravings, avoiding unhealthy binges, and getting health benefits, as well!

One glass of wine or four squares of dark chocolate – these small amounts can have amazing benefits, both short and long-term.

Keep it simple. Stick to moderate amounts and high-quality products.

This will allow you to reap the benefits of those antioxidants, avoid unhealthy ingredients, and indulge yourself in a sustainable and healthy way!

Shutterstock images: Andrii Gorulko, Subbotina Anna, SilberkornOther images: a gentler world

3 responses to “Healthy Indulgences – the benefits of dark chocolate and red wine”

  1. This article definitely made my day! I had no idea that chocolate could be somehow related to increased cognitive functions.

  2. Ah! Theo is one of my very favorite brands… now to go stock up! 😀

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