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Put the Joy Back in Staying Healthy

Posted: April 24, 2009

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Women do need to worry about alcohol increasing breast cancer risk. Alcohol may drive up estrogen levels, and estrogen seems to play an integral part in the development of many breast cancers. Epidemiologic studies have consistently found an association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk, although at moderate amounts (the drink-a-day level), the risk is small. The good news: folic acid may help offset the breast cancer risk posed by alcohol, so women who drink are encouraged to get an extra 400 micrograms per day.

Chocolate

Woody Allen saw it coming with his joke in Sleeper about researchers deciding that hot fudge was good for us after all. A steady stream of studies has won chocolate cardiovascular laurels by showing that it improves blood flow through arteries that supply the heart and the brain. Chocolate's winning ways continued in 2008. Harvard researchers found that two weeks of enhanced chocolate intake quickened blood flow through the middle cerebral artery. And Italian researchers reported a possible connection between eating dark chocolate and low levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation.

Not every study has been a thumbs up: researchers at the National Institutes of Health concluded that chocolate did not decrease blood pressure or improve insulin sensitivity in a two-week study of people with high blood pressure. Moreover, the chocolate-as-healthful dream needs a couple of reality checks. The most likely explanation for chocolate's good effects is that cocoa beans contain substances called flavonols (specifically, catechin and epicatechin, which are also found in tea) that stimulate production of nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels. In the studies cited above, researchers have used "flavonol-rich" chocolate. But typically, the processing of cocoa beans into chocolate removes flavonols. Dark chocolate may have more flavonols than other types, but you can't go just by darkness. Some companies have started to market products advertised as preserving the cocoa bean's flavonol content (for example, the Cocoavia bars made by Mars, a company that has funded a lot of the pro-chocolate research).

Another caveat: the sugar and fat content of chocolate candy translates into calories (more than 200 in a 3.5-ounce bar of expensive dark chocolate). And some of the fat in many chocolate bars is the unhealthful saturated variety.

Coffee

For the health conscious, a cup of coffee was once a somewhat perilous pleasure. Early studies showed a connection between coffee and heart attack, a worry that seemed to be validated by coffee's ability to quicken the pulse. Some other studies cast the gloomy shadow of cancer risk.