There is little more important to our wellbeing than a healthy heart. And with cardiovascular disease the leading cause of death among American women, it’s time to take a more serious look at heart healthy diets. Fortunately, we can take control of the nutritional aspects of our cardiac health. All we have to do is pay attention to expert advice and incorporate good choices into our daily diet. That’s where things get interesting: It can be challenging to sort through all the dietary information out there.
For example, a study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that unsweetened cocoa may help decrease heart disease risk due to its anti-inflammatory properties. So should we all be finding ways to incorporate cocoa into our diet?
“The results of the study showed improvement in endothelial function after the consumption of both solid and liquid cocoa rich in flavonoids (also known as polyphenols), but sugar-free cocoa showed significantly greater benefits than sugared cocoa,” says Dotti Durbin, a registered dietitian with the Washington University Heart Care Institute. In other words, yes, cocoa can be good for the heart.
“Cocoa or dark chocolate, and other flavonol-rich foods (such as dark blue, purple or black fruits and green tea) can be part of a heart-healthy diet,” she says. However, while you may rejoice over recent research indicating that consuming dark chocolate or cocoa may improve cardiovascular health, calorie intake is a factor, too, Durbin cautions. Eating too much of even the ‘right’ foods will lead to weight gain, which can undermine heart health.
“A small portion—one to one-and-a-half ounces—of dark chocolate can be part of a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which contain other important phytonutrients to keep your heart healthy,” Durbin says. She adds that nuts, again in small portions, add healthy fats to the mix. “Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fats found in fish and flaxseed, provide benefits of blood pressure regulation, improved blood fats and offer some protection against heart disease.”
Since we’re now free to enjoy a bit of dark chocolate, is it heart smart to pair it with a nice glass of red wine? “Although wine also has polyphenols, so do many other foods,” says Marcie Barnes, an administrative dietitian at St. Luke’s Hospital. “The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women or two per day for men. It is not advised to exceed this recommendation. As with cocoa, wine can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet.”
Chocolate and wine often feature prominently at holiday fetes, and that’s where moderation sometimes becomes tricky. “I would recommend having a healthy snack before you go to those holiday parties so you don’t overindulge in high-calorie foods, and I would be cautious of high-calorie cocktails,” Barnes says. Staying away from a sugar- and fat-laden buffet table, and remembering that holiday parties should be more about enjoying conversation than food, may also help bolster self-control.
“Simple doesn’t always make the headlines, but the best evidence remains—eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Barnes says. She refers people to the MyPyramid Food Guidance System, compiled by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, an organization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Information and useful tools are at mypyramid.gov.