The results are in and both coffee and chocolate have health benefits, but to what extent?
Americans are not used to good news about life’s little pleasures. We are told that salt will raise our blood pressure, saturated fat will clog our arteries and high fructose sweeteners in soft drinks will make us fat.
Our Puritan heritage dictates that suffering is good for the soul and that indulgence is suspect. That’s why it comes as such a shock to learn that coffee and chocolate might have health benefits.
Evidence is accumulating that both of these tropical treats may have unexpected bonuses. Coffee drinkers appear to be at lower risk for developing Type 2 diabetes (Nutrition Reviews, April 2007). Several studies support this association and, if proven true, it could represent a huge public health advantage.
Coffee is a complex mixture of chemicals and provides more antioxidants in the diet than many other foods, including many vegetables. That may explain why it is associated with a reduced risk of several cancers, including those of the mouth, throat and esophagus (American Journal of Epidemiology, Dec. 15, 2008). Other cancers (colon, liver and endometrium) also appear less common among coffee drinkers (International Journal of Cancer, April 1, 2009).
Women who drink at least four cups of coffee a day appear to be somewhat less likely to suffer a stroke than women who sip less than one cup a month (Circulation online, Feb. 16, 2009). Coffee also may have some protective effect against heart disease, but the research is contradictory. That might be in part because unfiltered coffee actually seems to raise cholesterol levels.
Another unexpected outcome linked to coffee drinking could be a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers collected data on coffee drinking habits from a large group of Finns in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who drank three to five cups of coffee daily were 65 percent less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 20 to 30 years later (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, January 2009).
If you think coffee is cool, just imagine the health benefits of dark chocolate. The evidence continues to accumulate that a little high-quality dark chocolate can relax blood vessels, making them more flexible (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2008).
A study in the same journal (July 2008) found that dark chocolate or cocoa helped blood vessels dilate and lowered blood pressure in overweight people. Other research has shown that dark chocolate can improve insulin sensitivity as well as blood pressure (Journal of Nutrition, September 2008). Increased insulin sensitivity means better blood sugar control.
Dark chocolate also seems to impact the blood in important ways, lowering platelet reactivity, improving cholesterol profiles and decreasing inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (Southern Medical Journal, December 2008).
Despite all this good news, it is possible to consume too much of a good thing. Excess caffeine can raise blood pressure, cause anxiety and insomnia and aggravate heartburn. Chocolate also can trigger reflux in some people, and indulging in too many sugar-rich chocolate bars will lead to weight gain.