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Healthy Foods and Fat Chances

March 23, 2012

Is coffee good for you? Does dark chocolate lower blood pressure? Does red wine reduce your chances of a heart attack? Do vegetarians have better sex lives? Does eating arugula make your ears grow bigger?

That last one was a trick question, to see if you were paying attention. The answer to the other questions—like the answer to so many questions about what foods we should eat–is a frustrating, “Yes, but…”

Robert J. Davis, a noted health journalist, admits as much in his new book, “Coffee Is Good for You,” published by the Penguin Group.  The constantly changing and contradictory advice disseminated by the media, the government, health groups and food companies about what we should and should not eat “is enough to give anyone indigestion,” Davis writes in his introduction.

Davis says these medical muddles develop because scientists are constantly learning more about nutrition and then releasing their studies at random.

But he cuts through the fat, in his readable book, to help us understand what the experts are currently saying.

Addressing the coffee question, Davis notes that this popular beverage had an unhealthy reputation for years due to its suspected link to heart disease and cancer. But early studies failed to account for all those cigarettes that coffee lovers used to smoke with their java, he says. More recent studies show that coffee, when consumed in moderation and sans cigarettes, does not increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes or cancer, but actually decreases the risk of these and other diseases.  “What’s more,” Davis writes, “coffee drinkers appear to live just as long as abstainers—and maybe even slightly longer.”

The “yes, but” here is that some people who drink more than three cups of caffeinated coffee a day can suffer from jitters, insomnia or stomach upset. Research has also linked heavy coffee consumption to bone fractures among women who get too little calcium.

Like coffee, dark chocolate has emerged from a shady past to become known for potential health benefits.  Davis reports on recent, short term studies—many funded by the chocolate industry—which show that dark chocolate can lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, reduce inflammation in arteries and make blood less likely to clot.

But he has two caveats. One: To be effective, the chocolate must be processed properly. Two: To reap full benefits the chocolate lover must eat 500 calories worth of dark chocolate a day and put on extra pounds in the process, “hardly a formula for better health,” Davis warns.

Davis’s sobering remarks regarding red wine show how convoluted health advice can get. He starts by quoting “consistent evidence from numerous studies” which show that red wine, like other forms of alcohol, “is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and premature death.” Then he warns that red wine, like all alcohol, can increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, “though scientists aren’t sure why.

“One thing we know for certain,” he writes, “is that binge or heavy drinking is harmful. What’s more, red wine isn’t medicine, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to drink it.”

His take on the sex lives of vegetarians suggests that the jury is still out.

“There is no direct evidence that vegetarians have superior sex lives,” he writes. “As for the claim by PETA and others that going meatless is more healthful, it does have merit—sort of.”

Rationalizing, Davis says that vegetarians tend to live longer than those who eat a standard western diet, “but they don’t outlive health-conscious people who are not vegetarians.”  Go figure.

Scores of other tricky health questions ranging from whether bagged salads should be washed (yes) to whether fiber prevents colon cancer (no) are addressed in Davis’s book. Some of his conclusions are surprising. He finds, for instance, that despite all of Popeye’s lyrical claims, spinach is not the healthiest food in the world.

“That’s because spinach is high in oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and can inhibit absorption,” he writes. “Other leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and turnip greens contain less oxalic acid and thus are better sources of calcium.”

In another surprising verdict, Davis gives high marks to the once lowly peanut and its fellow nuts. “Nutty as it may seem,” he writes, studies have shown that nut eaters—“especially those who indulged five or more times a week”—were less likely to suffer heart attacks than people who consumed nuts rarely or never.

Davis does not address all the current controversies swirling around prescribed medications.  That calls for another book entirely. But anyone who has heard the commercials or read the labels knows that the drugs which help you today can harm you tomorrow.

This adds up to tough choices for people needing medications.  To a much lesser degree, those of us seeking good nutrition also face tough choices. And the confusion is not apt to end soon. Davis warns that some of the advice in his book “will undoubtedly be superseded by new information in the future” as scientific knowledge evolves.

“Don’t let that frustrate you,” he writes. “Instead embrace the change and alter your eating habits accordingly.”

Other experts advise us to simply listen to our bodies.  I vote for that. When I listen to my body it says things like, “Go ahead, have that extra wine” or “Hey, let’s have ice cream and chocolate cake for dessert tonight.”  That, you have to admit, is advice to die for.

Gwen Gibson

From → humor

  1. Jo M permalink

    I am delighted to hear that two daily cups of coffee are good for me. Does adding half and half negate the benefit? I am saddened that the two dark chocolate Dove Promises I allow myself will not improve my health. And I actually like spinach, no doubt due to Popeye’s influence during my childhood. I am learning that Kale is pretty tasty with grilled onions, roasted sunflower seeds, and a little oil and vinegar, but I just can’t warm up to turnip greens. Can someone post a recipe?

  2. Theresa May permalink

    I plan to go out with chocolate on my breath and a fatty sheen on my lips. I eat healthy and do 3 miles per day on my treadmill, but life’s too short not to eat macaroni and cheese. Did I mention the Dove? Thanks for the affirmation and permission, Gwen!

  3. The health information out there is so confusing–each thing you read seems to contradict the next. My philosophy is moderation (don’t deny yourself everything you like, just don’t over-do it) and eating as pure and whole as possible (cans and boxes of food to a minimum)! It makes grocery shopping a piece of cake because you’re mainly shopping the perimeter of the store.

    And, of course, daily exercise helps take care of those little treats (Dove chocolate squares) that you enjoy.

  4. I loved reading your piece Gwen. The one thing we do know is that we don’t know everything about anything, especially food and health. I found your story informative, entertaining and confirming. In the meantime, I’m off to eat my 73% dark chocolate. I do know that it makes me feel better.

    Thanks for the nice article.

  5. Well, I wrote something very profound. And then I clicked on that little square below to get me a picture or something…and then everything I wrote disappeared. Because I take Lipitor (which may have an effect on memory) I can’t remember what I wrote that was so entertaining. I do remember writing this:

    I always listen to my body when it wants things including, but not limited to nuts, wine, wine and nuts, chocolate, nuts, chocolate and nuts…Up until recently, my body craved Milk Duds. The last one I’ll ever eat pulled a crown right off the implant. I’m trying to tell my body that those Milk Dud days are gone.

    I always listen to Gwen, too. She is even smarter than my body.

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