One day several years ago, a national news broadcast reporter covered a scientific study that revealed the beneficial components of chocolate. "It's good for your heart," she proclaimed. "Eat more chocolate." The 90-second news broadcast oversimplified the findings, and so did every other news source reporting the story in the wildfire of coverage that ensued. The "good news" of dark chocolate is still making headlines now, years later. Meanwhile millions are over-consuming chocolate and other foods that—while they may have some beneficial properties—have a lot of calories. Those calories are actually doing more harm than good.
So let's get to the nuances that were left out of those news stories, and take a look at the real benefits—and risks—of adding (and more commonly, over adding) these foods to your diet.
The Infatuation with Chocolate.
The claims are numerous: Chocolate has flavonoids, whose antioxidant properties help fight strokes. Chocolate prevents blood clots, which reduces the risk of heart attacks. It decreases blood inflammation, too. A small study even found that chocolate even increases insulin sensitivity, which reduces risk of diabetes.
It all sounds pretty great, until you remember that the readily available chocolate also contains sugar, fat, and about 250 calories per serving. Most people just don't have the room to add that many calories to their diet, especially if they are trying to lose or maintain their weight. Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight dwarfs the benefits offered by chocolate.
Nuts are an entirely plant-based whole food with lots of good nutritional offerings. Protein, calcium, vitamin E, selenium, iron, zinc, vitamin C, fiber: depending on the nut, you can get some serious nutritional benefit. That's the good news.
The bad news is—as crunchy and delicious as they are—a few nuts go a long way. Over indulging in nuts can put your daily calorie count way, way over the top. Just one ounce of nuts can have as much as 200 calories. Use your hand as a judge. One palm full per day will give you all of the benefits and, along with other healthy food choices, keep your overall calories in check.
Red, Red Wine.
Red wine is another food that has made headlines for its ability to protect against cancer and heart disease. The results are conflicting, one study found that the resveratrol found in red wine may prevent head and neck cancer, while another study found that it could increase a woman's chances for breast cancer. And like juice, red wine has calories—about 125 per glass. So if you enjoy red wine, drink it sparingly.
The take-home message is this: there are good components in a lot of delicious foods. No matter the benefit the food provides or claims, you always have to watch the portions. There's just one food you can eat with total abandon: plain vegetables. Go easy on the added fats when cooking or using dressing. Remember, even the undisputed nutritional "good guy" olive oil has more than 100 calories per tablespoon.
Rachel Rodney, MS, RD, CDE, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. "Health Matters" is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.