In the 1973 film Sleeper, Woody Allen’s character awakens after 200 years to find that everything he thought he knew about healthy food had changed: Wheat germ and organic honey are out, steak and hot fudge are in.
Today, 35 years after the film’s debut, we’ve heard enough contradictory dietary advice to have developed a collective case of what is sometimes called the Sleeper Syndrome — uncertainty in the light of rapidly changing food knowledge.
“It can be confusing,” acknowledges Michelle Weinbender, a registered dietitian at Sacred Heart Medical Center.
For a time, dietary fat was the enemy; then it was carbohydrates. Alcohol, caffeine and desserts are all vices to be avoided; or are they?
In recent years, studies have demonstrated benefits to including coffee, chocolate and red wine in the diet. Is it possible that these treats might actually be good for you?
Ever since the news first broke that red wine might be the underlying factor behind the French paradox — the relatively low rates of cardiovascular disease in France despite high consumption of saturated fats — American red wine consumption has climbed steadily. Research suggests that antioxidant flavonoids in red wine benefit heart health by lowering LDL (bad cholesterol), increasing HDL (good cholesterol) and reducing blood clotting.
People who do not currently drink alcoholic beverages shouldn’t start drinking just to gain red wine’s potential health benefits, Weinbender says, and people with conditions exacerbated by alcohol should steer clear as well. “But if you consume alcohol, red wine might be a good choice,” she says. As with most foods, moderation is the key: one 4-ounce serving per day for women, or one to two servings daily for men, is the standard recommendation.
Even at the recommended level of only one drink per day, however, alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer in women, she says. But the substantial reduction in risk for cardiovascular disease may balance that out, especially for older women.
The news that the flavonoids in dark chocolate can reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases brought prayers of thanksgiving to the lips of many. At last, we had a justification for eating chocolate — it’s been our most Sleeper-esque moment to date.
The benefits of chocolate are similar to those for red wine: Flavonoids have antioxidant properties, leading to a decrease in LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, a reduction in the risk for blood clotting, increased blood flow and possibly a corresponding reduction in blood pressure. Chocolate also boosts serotonin and endorphin levels, thereby improving mood and the perception of pleasure as well. Besides that, it just plain tastes good.
“Cocoa powder is high in antioxidants, so it helps with the risk of some chronic diseases,” Weinbender says. “In moderate amounts, a little bit of good chocolate could have some advantages.”
The disadvantage is that chocolate can be high in fat, calories and sugar. Choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate — the darker varieties have more antioxidants and less sugar.
Many of us love that jolt of joe in the morning, and caffeine has certainly been shown to increase alertness and mental sharpness — up to a point. But a study in October 2004 showed that regular consumption of coffee — up to five or six cups a day — decreased the risk for developing both diabetes and Parkinson’s.
“Epidemiological studies showed that people who drink coffee have less risk of developing Type 2 diabetes,” says Weinbender. The theory, she explains, is that caffeine may increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin. “It helps your pancreas pump out more insulin, so then you’ll use blood sugar better.”
Coffee has been linked to osteoporosis and it can exacerbate anxiety, so people who are prone to these two conditions should limit their coffee intake.
In summary, Weinbender says, it’s OK to consume coffee, chocolate and red wine as long as they are part of an overall healthy diet plan.
“If you are a wine drinker, then choose red over white,” she says. “If you have dessert, pick dark chocolate over cheesecake.”
If you’re a couch potato and you eat a lot of sugar and fat, Weinbender says, then coffee, chocolate and red wine won’t be the magic bullets that protect you. “Regular physical activity and a healthy diet are the cornerstones to preventing chronic disease,” she says. But once those are in place, then coffee, chocolate and red wine “could be that little extra edge that you need to stay healthy.
“The bottom line is, these things could all have some benefits, and not a lot of detriment,” she says. “The key is moderation. In my life, I just eat what I want, but I do it in moderation. I don’t go out of my way to drink red wine or eat dark chocolate — but if I want it, I know it’s OK to eat it.”