If you pay attention to news about food and nutrition you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy about what we should eat. Lists of foods to avoid and foods to eat every day are common. Unfortunately, lists from different sources may not be the same or, worse, a food that is on one “never eat” list is on another “always eat” list.
Often, it seems that the foods we should eat are not the things we enjoy the most. We are told to eat more vegetables and drink more water but avoid sweets and high-calorie restaurant meals. This leads many to develop the notion that good nutrition and good health are about depriving yourself of foods you enjoy. But this is not always the case. Sometimes, the foods we are supposed to eat and the foods we want to eat are the same.
Just in time for the holidays, here are three examples of foods that have health benefits that you can enjoy guilt-free—in moderation, of course!
This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have certain health benefits. Antioxidant flavonoids in chocolate have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, and reduce stress. These flavonoids are what give dark chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa (sometimes listed on the label as cacao or cocoa solids) and remember that a small amount is enough. Since chocolate does contain sugar and calories, eating more may not be the best idea.
Coffee also contains many of the same or similar flavonoids as chocolate that have similar effects and benefits. Research shows that moderate coffee consumption (2-3 cups per day) is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Coffee also contains caffeine which can have additional benefits related to alertness, attention, and physical performance. If you choose not to consume caffeine, decaffeinated coffee still contains the beneficial phytochemicals. But make sure you are drinking coffee. Many popular coffee drinks are more like milkshakes, with lots of added sugar and calories.
You have probably heard that red wine is good for you. Because it has many of the same antioxidant phytochemicals found in chocolate and coffee, drinking 1-2 glasses of red wine per day has been shown to reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease. Obviously, wine contains alcohol so more isn’t better and non-drinkers are not encouraged to start.
The good news is that there are some foods you may enjoy that can actually be good for you. With all of these, more isn’t always better, so moderation is the key. Also keep in mind that many fruits contain the same antioxidants as chocolate, coffee or wine, so a serving of berries, for example, may be a better choice. And finally, achieving good health requires more than simply changing one aspect of what you eat, so include these foods as part of an otherwise healthy diet balanced by daily physical activity.