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A Heart-Healthy Diet: Wining and Dining the Heart

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Wine and chocolate conjure up images of the good life, but they may also be part of a heart-healthy diet.

Given the high rates of heart disease among Americans, researchers have taken a close look at numerous foods and supplements -- from fatty fish to vitamin E -- to analyze the ideal ingredients for a heart-healthy diet.

"I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that we will ultimately find some magic food that's really going to make a difference," says Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition science and policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.

But she cautions against a false sense of security. For instance, pouring a fish oil capsule over your hot fudge sundae won't protect your heart, she says. It's still best to follow a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle. That means nutritious eating, as well as maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, avoiding smoking, and staying physically active.

"We've had high hopes for individual foods for a long time, but also, we're going to have to bite the bullet," she tells WebMD.

So keep hitting the gym -- and reward yourself afterward with a glass of red wine or a piece of chocolate.

Red Wine and the Heart-Healthy Diet

Does drinking red wine reduce the risk of heart disease? Some studies have shown that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have less heart disease risk than nondrinkers, and some research suggests that red wine may offer extra health benefits. It contains compounds, such as flavonoids and resveratrol, that may help to limit atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Drinking alcohol regularly, including red wine, may boost levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. One to two drinks per day have been shown to increase HDL by about 12%, according to the American Heart Association. The extra HDL can help to remove bad "LDL" cholesterol, meaning that there's less of the material to contribute to fatty plaques inside arteries. Moderate alcohol consumption may also reduce the risk of blood clots.

If you drink wine or alcohol, the American Heart Association urges moderation: no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women.

And if you don't drink alcohol, the AHA warns against starting in order to prevent heart disease, especially when you can take so many other preventive measures. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of addiction, high blood pressure, obesity, breast cancer, and accidents.

Chocolate and the Heart-Healthy Diet

Dark chocolate and cocoa are rich in antioxidants called flavonoids. Research suggests that eating flavonoid-rich chocolate helps to keep blood vessels healthier by improving their ability to expand.

One small study showed that eating high-flavonoid dark chocolate daily helped high blood pressure patients lower their blood pressure and reduce LDL. Patients who ate white chocolate got no beneficial effects.

Eating chocolate in moderation is fine, Lichtenstein says. But be aware that flavonoid levels differ in various chocolate products, so there's no guarantee that you'll get a dose large enough for health benefits. Also, too much chocolate has no place in a heart-healthy diet because the extra calories can lead to weight gain.

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