Valentine's Day: Good for the Heart
By Dulce Zamora
Reviewed By Michael W. Smith, MD
The stuff of Valentine's Day may be good for the heart, in more ways than one. Chocolate, red wine, and expressions of love could not only make thumpers go pitter-patter in romantic fashion, they could also lead to better heart health.
According to a growing amount of research, chocolate, red wine, and love can play a role in keeping the blood flowing throughout the body. Experts do not always agree on how these elements boost cardiovascular fitness, nor do they always recommend them as tools for disease prevention. But it's clear that a little of each isn't too bad -- in moderation.
The Sweet Stuff
Many people see chocolate as a guilty pleasure. How many dieters have felt they've committed a sin upon indulging in the cocoa delight? How many mothers have warned their children against eating too much, lest they get cavities?
There's no doubt chocolate can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay, but now researchers are finding it can do good things for the body as well.
"It seems a component in cocoa -- flavonoids -- can be heart healthful," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). She says flavonoids are antioxidants, known to protect against free radicals in the body. Free radicals are suspected of damaging arteries and triggering buildup of plaque (fatty substances) in the wall of blood vessels, which can lead to atherosclerosis.
Antioxidants can also help lower the level of "bad" cholesterol (LDL), and increase the amount of "good" cholesterol (HDL). This antioxidant effect is apparently greater in dark chocolate, because it has more cocoa beans, a natural source of flavonoids.
The flavonoids in dark chocolate may also improve the health of the endothelium (the lining in arteries and veins), says Joe Vinson, professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
In one study, he says people with one risk factor for heart disease (i.e. high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides) drank a single 6-ounce glass of cocoa, rich in flavonoids. From that one drink, researchers reportedly found a significant improvement in the flexibility of the arteries.
Studies can be misleading, though, says Vinson, as researchers typically give subjects high doses of cocoa. "We don't know if lower doses work," he says.
In the same vein, health experts warn against eating too much chocolate as it is usually packed with calories and saturated fat.
If you indulge yourself or a loved one in the cocoa treat, eat a small amount. Cynthia Sass, RD, spokeswoman for the ADA, recommends buying more expensive chocolate, but less of it. "With rich chocolate, it doesn't take much to be satisfied," she says, noting that people who take time to savor, and let the candy melt in their mouth, tend to be more content with smaller servings.
Wining and dining has long been a Valentine's Day tradition for sweethearts, and now there may be more reason to clink glasses.
For people who drink a moderate amount of red wine, there's a heart health benefit. Research has shown that the flavonoids in red wine -- originally from grape skins -- have an antioxidant effect, may raise good cholesterol levels and may help prevent blood clotting in vessels.
Other, more controversial findings reveal that not just red wine, but moderate amounts of alcohol in general, wards against cardiovascular disease.
"Alcohol has a blood-thinning effect, and that was what was found to be effective against stroke and heart disease," says Sass.
Yet the studies on different types of alcohol have been small, and don't show as much effect on increasing good cholesterol, says Holly Novak, MD, director of prevention and women's health at Prairie Cardiovascular in Springfield, Ill.
Additionally, Vinson says alcohol can also produce free radicals, which are bad for the liver, counteracting any antioxidant benefits. The only exception, he says, is red wine in moderation.
All the health professionals interviewed by WebMD warn against excessive drinking, or encouraging nondrinkers to start drinking. Alcohol consumption can raise the risk of liver problems, high blood pressure, obesity, breast cancer, suicide, and accidents.
Women of childbearing age are also encouraged not to drink, as alcohol can harm the growth and development of an unborn child. By the time women who drink heavily find out they're pregnant "the damage could already be done," says Sass, who recommends sparkling grape juice, or dark-red grape juice with sparkling water as alternatives to red wine.
For people that choose to drink alcohol, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink for women. A drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.