Research shows that chocolate may improve heart health, but not all varieties are equally nutritious. Find out what type to pick and how it can promote good health.
Why is chocolate healthy?
The cacao bean used to make chocolate is rich in flavanols that act as antioxidants, which protect against disease. While these findings have been supported in numerous studies, researchers continue to find more reasons chocolate has a positive impact on health. A recent study showed that good bacteria in the gut convert chocolate to compounds that combat inflammation, a major factor in chronic disease.
The antioxidants in dark chocolate may help reduce risk factors for heart disease and stroke. They have been found to protect LDL (bad) cholesterol from being oxidized, which causes plaque build-up leading to blood clots. There is also evidence that chocolate may lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and through the arteries.
What type of chocolate should I choose?
The darker and less processed a chocolate, the more flavonoids it contains. Milk chocolates are often heavily processed with added fat and sugar. According to University of Michigan Integrative Medicine, the milk in milk chocolate also binds to the antioxidants making them unavailable to the body. Choose bittersweet and semi-sweet dark chocolates that are at least 60 percent cocoa solids. Some health experts recommend 65 percent and higher.
How much chocolate should I eat?
The Cleveland Clinic suggests incorporating 1 ounce of dark chocolate a few times a week, but the Mayo Clinic also notes that 3 ounces of dark chocolate is the dose that some studies have found to provide health benefits. The problem is that this amount of chocolate can contain up to 450 calories, so keep this in mind when choosing a serving. Also, stick with solid dark chocolate. Extras, like caramel fillings, increase the calories and may reduce the overall health benefit.
If you are a coffee lover, you likely perk up when you hear that it improves health. But you may also wonder if you are doing damage when you hear negative reports. Research on coffee uncovers its benefits and also some dangers in having too much. Knowing both the pros and cons of drinking coffee will help you make the best choice for your personal health.
The Good and the Bad
Past studies have shown that heavy coffee consumption could lead to an increased risk for heart disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, recent studies do not show a connection between moderate coffee consumption and the risk for heart disease or cancer. Coffee has been found to boost memory, improve concentration, and decrease fatigue.
The antioxidants in coffee appear to be associated with its major health benefits. They may help to protect brain cells and reduce the risk of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. These antioxidants have also been found to make cells more sensitive to insulin, which improves regulation of blood sugar. Although, other studies have shown that the caffeine has the opposite effect on blood sugar, so the influences of regular coffee on insulin sensitivity may be more complicated.
Many of the negative effects of coffee drinking are due to the caffeine. There is evidence that coffee can increase blood pressure, increase heart rate, and decrease bone density. The caffeine in coffee can also lead to irritability, anxiety, stomach upset, and a lack of sleep. Compounds in unfiltered coffee could also increase LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Drinking Coffee for Health
So how much coffee is too much? Moderate consumption is defined as about four cups of coffee or 400 milligrams of caffeine. The negative effects of coffee are found with an intake of five or more cups per day. Some people have a greater sensitivity to the caffeine and some health conditions and medications influence coffee’s effect on the body.
If you are healthy and have not been advised by a medical professional to avoid coffee, enjoy it in moderation like you would any other food or drink. The negative effects become a greater risk when you begin to rely on coffee to reduce fatigue. This is because your system will build up a tolerance to the caffeine over time, meaning you will need to drink more and more to get the alertness you are seeking.
Also be sure to drink your four cups or less in the morning. While the lasting effects of caffeine vary from person to person, it takes about six hours for it to leave your system. Drinking coffee too late in the day can disrupt your ability to sleep, which will then cause you to drink more coffee the next day, and lead to an ongoing cycle of overconsumption.
The fear of fruits and vegetables going to waste makes it challenging to keep the kitchen full of produce. Don’t be afraid to stock up during the next sale. There are many ways to preserve produce that will keep you eating nutritious fruits and vegetables year round.
Dry and Dehydrate
Drying and dehydrating removes the moisture from produce to prevent the food from spoiling. It provides a healthy way to turn fruits and vegetables into shelf-stable treats without added sugar and sodium. Electric food dehydrators dry foods quickly with circulating air at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Fruits and vegetables can also be dried in the oven on it’s lowest temperature setting.
It may take some trial and error to successfully dry produce in the oven. Keep the oven door open, rotate pans occasionally, and watch the food closely to prevent scorching.
Fruits like apples, apricots, berries, and pears, and vegetables such as carrots, beets, greens, pumpkins, and tomatoes are all good options for drying and dehydrating.
Fruits and vegetables can be blended into purees and dried on sheet pans to make leathers that can can be sliced and rolled for an easy snack.
Small whole fruits or fruits cut into thin slices dry more evenly. Toss the fruit in lemon juice to help prevent color changes during drying.
Vegetables dry well when cut into thin slices or small strips. Blanching (cooking vegetables in boiling water for two to five minutes and then submerging them in an ice bath until cool) before dehydrating will help soften vegetables to promote faster drying.
Foods must be completely dry to prevent spoilage during storage. Properly dried fruits and vegetables can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature for 6 months to 1 year.
Freezing is a healthy and convenient way to preserve your produce, but there are some things to keep in mind to ensure you end up with a healthy and appealing product when it is defrosted.
Fruits and vegetables contain enzymes that change the flavor, color and nutrients of produce. These enzymes can remain active even while the food is frozen. Blanching before freezing preserves quality by stalling the action of these enzymes while also killing any bacteria on the surface.
Remove all of the air from freezer bags to prevent oxidation and the development of off flavors.
Freeze produce soon after purchase. The more quickly a food freezes, the better the quality once it defrosts. Don’t overload your freezer with room temperature foods as this can increase the time it takes to freeze the food.
Frozen foods should be stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Most frozen fruits and vegetables can be stored for 8 to 12 months.
While most fruits and vegetables freeze well, the National Center for Home Food Preservation advises against freezing cabbage, celery, cucumbers, lettuces, parsley, and radishes. Their high water content leaves them mushy and unappetizing when defrosted.
Fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion. Cabbages and cucumbers are the most commonly fermented vegetables. According to Tufts University, fermenting cabbage to create sauerkraut and kimchi increases the cancer-fighting glucosinolates. The downside of fermentation is that the process requires large amounts of salt. Be sure to limit your overall sodium intake on the days you enjoy fermented foods.
Store-bought fermented foods often undergo high-heat cooking and pasteurization, which kills the beneficial bacteria. By making your own fermented vegetables, you can preserve these healthy components.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation cautions to use tested and approved recipes when fermenting foods. Do not attempt to alter ingredients such as salt or vinegar. The correct balance of ingredients in necessary to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
Green juice is made by juicing different green vegetables and often some fruits to create a slightly sweet drink that provides vitamins and minerals. While green juice is not an ideal quick-fix weight loss tool, it does have nutritional benefits. These tips will help you identify the pros and cons of incorporating juice into your healthy eating plan.
Consider juice as a vegetable serving, not a meal replacement.
Green juices provide an easy way to get more servings of vegetables, but they lack the total calories, protein, fiber, and healthy fat to be a balanced meal. Consider them a healthy addition to your eating plan instead of using them as a meal replacement. Add a small glass to your breakfast or use sweeter green juices as a dessert.
Don’t assume juice is a healthier option.
While juices can be beneficial, don’t assume they are the healthiest choice. According to the Mayo Clinic, most of the vitamin, minerals, and phytonutrients do transfer to the juice, but there is no evidence to show that juices are healthier than eating whole fruits and vegetables.
Know that juice may leave you feeling hungry.
For the same reasons that green juice doesn’t make a good meal, it may also leave you feeling hungry. Without the fiber from the skin and pulp, juices lack the ability to keep you feeling full. Depending on the types of fruits and vegetables used, juices can also be high in sugar. While these are natural sugars, without the help of protein and fiber to keep blood sugar levels steady, blood sugar can spike and then drop, leaving you sluggish and hungry. Enjoy juice, but don’t expect it to tide you over until dinner.
Keep up the variety.
The big benefit of green juices is that they can include so many different vegetables. By incorporating more produce, you are supplying your body with more vitamins and minerals.
Spinach, kale, cabbage, and mustard greens are just a few greens that can be juiced for your drink. Juices can also include herbs like mint, cilantro, or parsley. If you find the flavors a little too bitter, add in a piece of fruit like a granny smith apple or an orange. The sweetness is usually enough to overcome any bitterness.
Use juice as an opportunity to try new foods.
Sometimes the issues you have with eating a new vegetable is not the flavor, but the texture. Juice helps remove these barriers. If there is a raw or cooked green that you dislike, try juicing it with other vegetables, herbs, and a piece of fruit. You may discover a new way of enjoying more foods and increasing the variety of nutrients you consume.
Scientific terms like antioxidant are used to describe foods and their health benefits, but sometimes with little explanation. You likely know that special plant nutrients help to protect you against disease, but how this occurs may be less clear. When you gain a better understanding of which foods provide valuable nutrients and how these nutrients work, it’s easier to make healthy eating a priority.
The role of antioxidants.
Free radicals are molecules in the body that damage cells and may increase your risk for disease. Free radicals result from converting food to energy, performing exhausting exercise, and exposure to elements in the environment, such as smoke and pollution. Antioxidants are important because they bind to these free radicals preventing their ability to damage cells, potentially improving health.
Types of antioxidants.
There are four major vitamins and minerals that are classified as antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene (converted to vitamin A in the body). In addition to these main nutrients, there are many phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that also act as antioxidants. Some examples of phytonutrient categories include flavonoids and polyphenols. The phytonutrients within all these categories are numerous. There more than 600 known carotenoids alone. Each food source for antioxidants has a unique set of these phytonutrients and scientists regularly discover new compounds and health benefits.
Top food sources for antioxidants.
Getting antioxidants from food is preferred over loading up on supplements. Research on the effectiveness of these supplements is mixed and it is possible to get too much of these vitamins and minerals, which can lead to toxicity. By eating a variety of foods, you can ensure a healthy balance of antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources along with nuts, legumes, and whole grains. The United States Department of Agriculture has conducted research on the antioxidant capacity of over 100 foods. Results for the top fruits include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes, and cherries. The top vegetables include kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli florets, beets, red bell peppers, onions, corn, and eggplant.