Food-aceuticals: Drink - and Eat - to Your Health

Is the recipe for better health found in the pantry instead of the medicine cabinet?

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

From omega-3 fatty acids to flavonoids, the ingredients in foods you eat every day may be potent weapons in the battle against disease.

Once-forbidden foods like chocolate, nuts, and wine made headlines in 2004 for their potentially healthy benefits, and new research suggests that the key to avoiding heart disease or cancer may be found in the cupboard rather than the medicine cabinet.

But the secret may not lie in a single wonder food. Instead, researchers say that variety may really be the spice of (long) life. To get your plate in order, WebMD asked the experts for their top picks from this year's newsmakers.

Flavonoids: What Makes Chocolate and Wine Good for You

The discovery of flavonoids and the bevy of heart-healthy benefits they possess has been a boon to wine and chocolate lovers.

The antioxidant-rich compounds found in the seeds and skins of plants, such as grapes, cocoa beans, and citrus fruits, first gained the attention of researchers in the early 1990s as a means of explaining the so-called French Paradox. Researchers proposed then that French people had lower rates of heart attacks because they drank moderate amounts of red wine with their meals.

Since then, more than 300 studies on grape flavonoids have shown that drinking red wine or grape juice may help blunt the artery-clogging effects of a fatty meal and reduce the risk of heart disease over the long-run.

Many of the same flavonoids in grape products are also found in varying concentrations in green and black tea as well as chocolate, but the bulk of research so far has been focused on grape flavonoids.

"It is exciting that different investigators dealing with grape products, whether it be red wine, de-alcoholized red wine, grape juice, or grape seed and skin extracts, they are all seeing some significant, potentially beneficial things," says John D. Folts, PhD, professor of medicine and nutritional science at the University of Wisconsin Medical School.

Folts says animals with high cholesterol will develop atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries in about six to nine months, a process in humans that takes 20 to 30 years. But several recent studies have shown that when these animals are given grape products, the artery-clogging process slows down.

"The suggestion is that the same thing would work in humans," says Folts. He says the early studies on tea and chocolate flavonoids are promising, but it's still too early to draw any definitive conclusions from them.

Researchers say flavonoids may help promote heart health in several ways, such as:

  • Helping to prevent blood clots, which may trigger a heart attack or stroke.
  • Preventing cholesterol from entering and damaging blood vessel walls.
  • Improving the health of arteries, making them expand and contract more readily, helping them carry blood more effectively.
  • Stimulating the production of nitric oxide, which may stall hardening of the arteries.

Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutritional science and policy at Tufts University, says although the research is reasonably good in showing that drinking a moderate amount of wine, defined as one or two glasses per day for men and no more than one glass per day for women, is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, it is also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

"There is still some confusion over alcohol, and I think that's understandable because it has potentially good and bad effects," says Lichtenstein. "One should not start drinking if they don't already, and they have to really weigh the risks and benefits."

She says it's difficult to make a broad recommendation for drinking wine or other types of alcohol based on its potential health benefits because there are also some people who may be more likely to have substance abuse problems with alcohol.

The "Good" Fat (Fatty Acids)

Fat also got a healthy image makeover this year thanks to new research on omega-3 fatty acids and their ability to reduce the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, lake trout, and herring. In September, the FDA approved a new qualified health claim that allows foods and supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids to advertise the fact that eating the product may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Although health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, already recommend fish as a part of a heart-healthy diet based on earlier findings of epidemiological studies, Lichtenstein says new research this year offers new proof of the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.