What’s the healthier treat: A glass of red wine with dinner, or a square of dark chocolate after it?
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The best food plan involves lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and olive oil. But there’s room for an occasional treat, too, says dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.
Here’s the lowdown on these two treats, which have both been reported to have heart-healthy benefits.
A study published in 1979 first showed a link between lower rates of heart disease in countries where people drank more wine, even though those countries often also had diets higher in saturated fat. This phenomenon later became known as The French Paradox, and it triggered much more research into the potential health benefits of wine.
Studies done in animals have found that resveratrol may protect against hypertension, hardening of the arteries, stroke, heart attack and heart failure. But studies in humans haven’t consistently shown these same effects.
“The effect, if it exists, is likely small,” Zumpano say.
That light-to-moderate part is important, though. When it’s overdone, alcohol can become a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases and may trigger atrial fibrillation.
What does all of this mean? If you don’t drink, it’s not recommended that you start. But if you enjoy some alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle, dietary guidelines and The American Heart Association recommend a maximum of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Studies have linked moderate chocolate intake with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Why? It could be because cocoa beans are high in flavanols, a type of nutrient also found in some fruits, vegetables and tea. Research has linked flavanols to reduced blood pressure and improved heart health.
But processing may cut down some of the flavanol content, and the amount that ends up in your commercial chocolate bar varies by brand. Dark chocolate will have more than milk chocolate, but there’s no way to know for sure how much.
As with wine, there’s also a downside to chocolate. It’s high in calories, saturated fat and, sometimes, sugar. One ounce of dark chocolate can contain as many as 170 calories, and most average-sized chocolate bars are between 1.5 to 3.5 ounces, so it can be easy to go overboard.
Your best bet for heart health is to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats, and low in processed meat, dairy and sweets.
And, if you enjoy them, moderate amounts of red wine and chocolate can be part of that. There are potential upsides and downsides of both.
“If you’re consuming small quantities of chocolate or the occasional glass of wine because you enjoy these foods, there’s no reason to change,” Zumpano says.