Did you ever see the old Woody Allen movie, Sleeper? Funny movie. The main character wakes up in the future to discover that a lot of the things we used to consider unhealthy, like cigarettes and chocolate pie are in fact healthy. Tobacco use is still definitely on the bad list. But many of the foods we once considered unhealthy have been shown to promote health.
There was a time when most doctors would advise us not to drink coffee. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people ages 50 to 71 who drank at least one cup of coffee per day lowered their risk of dying from diabetes and heart disease. The health benefit is likely due to beneficial compounds such as antioxidants and not caffeine. Decaf drinkers had the same results.
Some researchers believe that long-term coffee drinking may boost the production of “feel good” hormones such as dopamine. Recent studies have found that adults who drink two to four cups of coffee per day have a lower incidence of suicide and are less likely to develop depression.
For most healthy adults, two to four cups of brewed coffee per day is considered a safe amount, half that for pregnant women. More than that can cause insomnia, irritability, and restlessness. Caffeine is not recommended for people with anxiety disorders, acid reflux or irritable bowel syndrome.
Chocolate has enjoyed a change in reputation in recent years. Studies have shown that consuming small amounts of dark chocolate on a regular basis can lower blood pressure. This may be due to the vasodilating effects of chocolate. When our blood vessels relax, our blood pressure goes down. This does not mean that you can replace your blood pressure medicine with a candy bar. But if your blood pressure is starting to creep up and your doctor is telling you that eventually you may need to take medicine, half an ounce of dark chocolate daily is recommended.
The health promoting ingredient in dark chocolate is cacao. Look for chocolate that is 70% cacao or greater. The first time you try dark chocolate it will seem bitter. Try adding a few unsalted almonds (another heart healthy food) and stick to the small serving size. After a while your palate will begin to appreciate the rich dark flavor. Incidentally, dark chocolate pairs well with a rich red wine like cabernet sauvignon. This healthy eating plan is sounding better every day!
The health benefits of red wine are mostly attributed to the antioxidant compound resveratrol, present in the skins of grapes. During fermentation, red wines have extended contact time with grape skins which concentrates the resveratrol in the wine. This plant compound helps reduce heart disease by raising our “good” HDL cholesterol and by reducing inflammation and blood clotting.
Resveratrol in the plant acts as part of the vine’s immune system and neutralizes cell damage that occurs from UV damage, pathogens, pollution, and daily stresses of life. In humans, our cells encounter the same kinds of wear and tear. Resveratrol works the same in our cells to reduce rapid aging, maintain heart and blood vessel health, fight off disease and reduce cellular changes that lead to diabetes and Alzheimer’s. For this reason moderate consumption of red wine is healthy. On the other hand, excessive alcohol intake causes many health problems. Moderation in all things is a key element of healthy living.
Science is a continuously unfolding story. Isn’t it refreshing to find that some foods once thought unhealthy might in fact have health benefits? If we were to wake up in the future what other surprises would we find? It’s no surprise that a little fun is healthy.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.