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Chocolate and wine — good for the heart?

February 11, 2016 | Kristina Lindgren
Red wine and chocolate

Are those popular classics — red roses, chocolates and red wine — good or bad for your health?

Roses undoubtedly soothe the psyche. But every few months, it seems, a new study extolls or dismisses the medical benefits of dark chocolate and red wine. What’s a health-minded person to do?

Moderate consumption of both, it turns out, can contribute to heart health, even for people with a history of cardiovascular disease, said cardiologist Dr. Ailin Barseghian El-Farra, who is part of the UCI Health cardiovascular team.

Cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate, and alcohol, including red wine, contain antioxidants that have been shown to:

  • Increase good cholesterol (HDL)
  • Decrease bad cholesterol (LDL)
  • Improve blood vessel and blood-clotting functions

Both also appear to have beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity, said Barseghian, who specializes in interventional and preventive cardiology.

What is in alcohol and chocolate?

The benefits of moderate use of alcohol are thought to come from plant-based non-alcoholic ingredients, polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Cacao beans also are full of polyphenols known as flavonoids, which help protect the cacao plant from toxins and repair cell damage. Flavonoids are also found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including:

  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Grapes
  • Onions
  • Nuts
  • Tea
  • Red wine

Experts believe people can achieve considerable health benefits by including these so-called super foods and beverages in their diets.

A recent study showed that consuming a half-ounce to 3.5 ounces of chocolate daily is associated with cardiovascular health, even a lower risk of stroke. Although the study participants ate more milk chocolate than dark, the higher the cocoa content, the more concentrated are the bioactive components. Some experts recommend 72 percent cocoa content or higher.

Barseghian tends to agree.

“Caution needs to be taken with the sugar and fat content in commercially available chocolate snacks,” she said. “Cacao beans alone are low in sugar and, despite their high fat content, they do not appear to adversely affect lipid (cholesterol) levels.”

When it comes to red wine, though, she said it remains uncertain whether it is “more cardio-protective than other forms of alcohol.”

Don’t overdo

Whatever your alcohol preference, imbibe in moderation, Barseghian said.

“The benefit of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health is dose-related. The recommended dose is a maximum of one drink for women and two drinks for men per day.”

How much is one drink of alcohol

A drink is defined as:

  • 4 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits
  • 1 ounce of 100-proof alcohol

People who don’t drink shouldn’t feel they need to start. Moreover, “these recommendations exclude binge drinking and heavy consumption,” she said. “Additionally, women who drink alcohol, even in moderation, may be at increased risk of breast cancer.”

Prevention is best

In fact, the single best action to improve heart health is to prevent heart disease, said Barseghian, who recommends following the American Heart Association’s seven steps:

In the meantime, what about the chocolates and red wine for your sweetheart?

Go ahead, get the dark chocolates and red wine, she said, “but enjoy them responsibly.”

You can also buy as many fragrant red roses as your wallet can afford.

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