CHOCOLATE ON VALENTINE’S DAY? NO, EVERY DAY!

A National Confectioners Association survey recently revealed that 94% of Americans reported wanting chocolate on Valentine’s Day.  I didn’t participate in the study but you can count me among them.  I want it every day.  I’m health conscious.  Read on.

For hundreds of years however, Europeans felt chocolate was heart healthy and even aided the liver and one’s digestion, among other benefits.

Chocolate in this country has traditionally been an indulgence, where the expectation is merely good taste and satisfaction – with some calories and fat.

That’s changing.  A lot of research during the past 20 years or so is telling us that chocolate can be heart-healthy, and via a variety of mechanisms.

Science for chocolate nerds

Two components in chocolate seem to be giving the benefits: antioxidants and the fat.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, has long been associated with numerous measures of health benefits and reduced health risks, including lower risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

Chocolate is rich in a subclass of antioxidants called “flavonoids”.  Catechins, epicatechins, and procyanidins are the main flavonoids in chocolate and they’re present in higher concentrations than in most other plant foods, even tea and red wine on a per-serving basis.  Dark chocolate is the third largest contributor of antioxidants to the American diet, after fruits and vegetables.

The fat in cocoa is mostly saturated – usually something we advise reducing in the diet. But not all saturated fats are created equally, and the primary one in chocolate is stearic acid, which seems to have more neutral, not harmful, effects.

Here are some of the benefits studies have consistently shown for chocolate:

  • Lower blood pressure: The reduction isn’t huge, but it seems to lower both the top number (systolic) by about 5 points and the bottom number (diastolic) by about 3 points. Not huge, but better than for most “treat” foods!
  • Improved markers of cardiovascular health: It seems to reduce LDL-cholesterol (the bad one) and raise HDL-cholesterol (good one) – at least when it replaces butter. It doesn’t top olive oil in this respect, but swapping a pastry for some chocolate makes sense.
  • Reduced “platelet aggregation”: This is beneficial because it helps prevent plaque build-up in your arteries.

How to do chocolate right

Yes, chocolate can fit into a healthy diet.  It might even be a good thing, in the right amount.  Here are a few tips if you want to have chocolate regularly:

  • Go dark. Really dark.  The benefits come when the cocoa content is 70% of higher.
  • Take 1.  Figure 1 ounce a day (about 30 grams). It’s only about 160 calories, so it’s lower in calories than most desserts!
  • Swap right. Use your daily chocolate to replace lower-quality foods. This usually means junk snacks.  You’ll find that an ounce of dark chocolate is satisfying.
  • No chewing allowed! Bite a small piece, notice the crackle of the bar, and let it melt in your mouth. Why rush?
  • Take a powder.  Leverage the flavor of cocoa powder! Hot chocolate, smoothies, on Greek yogurt!  Even shake it onto sliced apples or added it to coffee.  It’s almost calorie-free.  Trader Joe’s and Ghirardelli both have great cocoa powder.
  • Don’t “go Dutch”.  Cocoa labeled as “processed with alkali”, or “Dutched cocoa”, has lost most of the antioxidants. I avoid this kind of chocolate. It’s not harmful, just has no antioxidants.

Chocolate caveat

If you have reflux or heartburn, chocolate can irritate the stomach and stimulate acid production.  Chocolate doesn’t have much caffeine, but dark chocolate has more than milk chocolate, and it does have theobromine, which can also get you buzzy if you have it before bedtime.  Also, the antioxidant activity can vary, based on origin and handling methods.

Finally, file this under “nice-to-know”: Mondelez, the huge mega candy company, has a goal of 200,000 cocoa farmers participating in its “Cocoa Life” sustainable cocoa farming program, by year 2020.  They recently announced that they are nearly halfway there, with participation nearly doubling in the year 2015 alone.  Props to Mondelez.

Chocolate on Valentine’s Day.  Call it a gift from the heart, and for the heart!

IS BUTTER BACK? NO, BUT FULL-FAT DAIRY IS!

Do you shy away from drinking milk and yogurt because you don’t like the low-fat/fat-free stuff but also avoid cheese because of the saturated fat?

Well, have a slice of cheese and read on.  And while you’re at it, scoop some full-fat yogurt on some fruit, too.  Your cardiologist probably won’t cringe, either, and may even give you a high-5.  That’s because several recent studies, both randomized clinical trials, (considered the “gold standard” of research), and observational studies that look at tens of thousands of people and are less rigorous, suggest that full-fat dairy foods — but not butter — may be better for us than we thought.

Dietary guidelines have traditionally advised us to reduce our consumption of saturated fat, and full-fat dairy foods are a significant source of it.  These newer studies are suggesting that saturated fat isn’t all the same, shouldn’t all be under one big umbrella.  Dairy fat, in particular, may behave differently than other saturated fats.

Cheese vs. butter

The fat in these two foods have similar levels of saturated and unsaturated fat.  Makes sense, as they both contain dairy fat from milk.  Butter is simply isolated from the milk, whereas cheese has the fat as well as protein and even a small amount of carbohydrate, depending on how long it was cultured.   Since the fats are of similar type, you could also reason that similar amounts of saturated fat from butter and cheese would behave the same way in the body.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not in this study that reviewed randomized controlled trials, — the gold standard of research – to compare the effects of cheese and butter on blood lipids.  Here’s what they concluded from the studies they reviewed:

  • Compared with butter, cheese reduced both LDL-cholesterol (the bad stuff) by 6.5% and HDL-cholesterol (the good stuff) by 3.9%. Note that the more hazardous LDL dropped much more than the desirable HDL.
  • Cheese intake had no effect on triglycerides.
  • When compared to tofu or reduced-fat cheese, full-fat cheese increased LDL cholesterol.

Foods vs. nutrients

Just as not all saturated fat is the same, it may be a mistake to see all dairy fat as the same, even though it all has the same origin and composition.  Why? Because we’re learning that there’s more to food than just its nutrients.  (You may think, “duh” but in the nutrition world, it’s always been just about nutrients!)

In this 2016 synopsis of several symposia that looked at 131 studies, the research did not show any increased risk for cardiovascular disease from the consumption of full-fat dairy foods.  Moreover, for weight gain, there was actually an inverse relationship with weight gain and obesity risk, meaning that higher consumption of full-fat dairy foods was associated with less obesity and weight gain.

The thought is that when dairy fat exists in foods, it’s bound to a complex matrix that includes milk proteins (chiefly casein and whey) as well as minerals and even bacterial cultures, in the case of cheese and yogurt.  These along with the compounds of digestion, may reduce the absorption of some of the cholesterol and/or saturated fats.

I actually like this type of research because it helps me work with patients who couldn’t care less about the biochemistry of it all, they just want to know how to eat a healthy diet that also tastes good.

Cut-to-the-Chase take-aways:

  • Overall, good news here about cheese and full-fat dairy foods.
  • Keep eating the fatty fish and olive oil!  But it’s OK to replace butter and fattier cuts of meat with cheese and full-fat dairy.
  • IF you like fat-free yogurt and you’re used to 1% or fat-free milk, keep at it!
  • If your diet is short of calcium and vitamin D because you don’t care for low-fat or fat-free diary, and including more full-fat dairy foods would help correct that
  • Spend wisely: Full-fat dairy foods have more calories than lower-fat versions, so be sure you balance calories elsewhere in your diet.

ARE YOU & YOUR KIDS “BACKLOADING” PROTEIN?

milk-cheese-slices-outdoors

You’ve heard about protein, you know it’s important for building muscle, and you know meat, poultry and fish have a lot of it.

No worries about getting enough protein, either, at least here in the US. But according to research by the US government, we tend to “backload” our protein – meaning we get most of it at dinner. Their stats show that dinner gives us nearly 60% of our daily protein. Breakfast is arguably the most important meal of the day, yet it brings us only about 13% of our protein.

We may be getting enough protein, but do we get it EARLY ENOUGH in the day?

“FRONTLOADING” protein

WHEN you eat protein is important. Kids (and adults) eat most of their protein and calories from after school on, but they NEED most of it earlier, when the demands of their day are greatest, starting at breakfast. Sadly, up to 40% of kids don’t even eat breakfast daily.

Load ‘em up with breakfast protein and they’ll work and feel better all day.­ It’s true. They’ll also be more focused at school and research has shown they also tend to eat less during the rest of the day. Anecdotally, in my practice, I’ve noticed that breakfast-skippers who start eating a good, high-protein breakfast also seem to be less tired after school, allowing them to be more active. It does makes sense, because without breakfast, they run out of energy. Kids shouldn’t want a nap after school, they should want to play, and protein-packed breakfast helps them do just that.

But what KIND of protein?

Meat has good protein but dairy and eggs actually have the highest quality protein, for most efficient use by your body. Most kids would especially benefit from more dairy. Why? The vast majority of kids (and adults!) also don’t get enough calcium, potassium, or vitamin D, and a simple glass of milk is like a cargo truck of these nutrients, and 6 other essential ones as well, so it covers a lot of ground, nutritionally. And, kids LIKE it.

yogurt-smoothieYou might think cereal and milk takes care of the protein at breakfast. For young kids, maybe. But for older kids, especially teens, that’s only about 10 grams of protein. Aim for 20-30 grams and they’ll stay full until lunch. Here are some options and their protein amounts, to help get them to that 20 grams. Combine them as you like:

  • Glass of milk (any percentage of fat, white or flavored): 8 grams (some brands have 9 or 10 grams)
  • Greek yogurt, flavored (a 5.3-oz cup): 12 grams
  • String cheese (2 oz. portion): 12 grams
  • 1 egg, any style: 6 grams
  • 1 oz. cheese (cheddar, Swiss, etc.): 6 grams
  • Cottage cheese, ½ cup: 14 grams
  • Ricotta, low-fat, ¼ cup: 7 grams
  • Peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons: 7 grams (but also about 190 calories, so use wisely if kids are overweight)

Cottage and ricotta cheese for kids? Yes, and they’re perfect in smoothies, as is Greek yogurt.

Keep it COW

To be clear: I’m talking about real milk. The “milk alternatives” like almond, coconut, rice, and other “milk” have almost no protein or naturally occurring calcium. Milk is naturally loaded with good stuff.

Nice add-on: the milk you buy is probably locally produced. Most places in the US are within a few hours’ drive of a dairy farm, even if you live in a big city. Pour a glass and feel good about supporting your local diary people.

Just as nice: milk is one of the best protein buys today. Even at $4.00/gallon, it’s only 25 cents a glass.

Supported by the Milk Processor Education Program

Searching for Consensus on “Healthy” Foods

healthy-food3Whenever I read an article that starts out, “Nutritionists say…” or “Nutritionists believe…” I have to wince a bit.  Get a bunch of us in a room and the only sure thing is that we’ll be talking about food and nutrition.  A new survey conducted by the New York Times however, suggests that nutritionists we don’t all agree about what’s “healthy”.

This came as no surprise to me, but the survey also looked at how the opinions of nutritionists differed from those of consumers.  Read my take on the survey itself and what to do about it all in my Huffington Post blog here.