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The truth about the benefits of wonder foods

WHEN it comes to our diet and its impact on our health, it can often feel like we are being bombarded with conflicting information. One minute we are told of wonder foods that ward off diabetes or slow the ageing process, the next we are told those same foods have the potential to send us to an early grave. Chocolate, coffee and red wine are three of the substances which arouse the most heated debate and confusion.

It seems that no sooner is one study released espousing their health benefits than another crops up to contradict it.

To determine whether chocolate, coffee and red wine are friend or foe, T.health sought the opinions of a panel of experts, comprising dietitian Susie Burrell, Sydney-based GP and AMA Public and Preventative Health Committee chairman Dr John Gullotta, and Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Sydney, Jennie Brand-Miller.

It's been claimed chocolate offers a number of benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to lowering the risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.

Flavonoids found in cocoa are known to be a rich source of antioxidants. But before reaching for the family block of Dairy Milk, remember it also contains trans and saturated fat as well as high levels of sugar.

High-quality dark chocolate is said to contain a greater cocoa content and therefore more antioxidants, yet these levels can be influenced by the production process.

White chocolate has no flavonoids at all.

The dietitian:

"Eating small amounts of chocolate can be consistent with a healthy diet and will offer the protection of extra antioxidants.

"If you have an active lifestyle and can afford the extra kilojoules in your diet, then block chocolate could be your choice. If you want to avoid extra kilojoules then cocoa powder can be taken as a drink or used in low-kilojoule recipes."

The doctor:

"Chocolate is an energy-dense food that can contribute strongly to total kilojoule intake.

"Placing something like chocolate as a prime food in a healthy diet sends out a confusing message to the community.

"It's best to have an intake of natural antioxidants and not those from foods rich in fat and sugar."

The academic:

"The antioxidative property of chocolate comes mainly from flavonoids.

"The flavonoid content of chocolates depends on the cocoa content and the processing of the cocoa. Raw cocoa powder is found to contain more flavonoid than the alkali-processed ones."


While some see their daily cappuccino as a prerequisite for starting the day, others consider it an addictive drug.

Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Commonly found in coffee, tea and soft drinks, it contains antioxidants that can reduce the risk of diabetes.

Caffeine can help us stay alert and may improve physical performance, however it can also cause sleep disturbance and withdrawal symptoms.

The dietitian:

"In small amounts caffeine can make you feel more alert and full of energy, however in large amounts it can make you feel nervous and restless.

"If you have a lot of caffeine you may feel withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, anxiety and irritability if you stop having caffeine."

The doctor:

"Caffeine can increase alertness in some people, but there is very little evidence for an effect on performance and energy levels.

"Some people seem to be able to tolerate much more caffeine than others, however 250mg (approximately) will probably cause some mild effects.

"It is an addictive drug which can cause disturbed sleep, raised blood pressure, anxiety, headache and a fast and irregular pulse."

The academic:

"Caffeine is one of the few substances proven to enhance physical performance. But we are talking about microseconds and elite athletes, not your weekend warriors.

"Unfiltered coffee contains a group of compounds called diterpenes, which were proven to be very potent in raising LDL (bad) cholesterol. These diterpenes are hiding in the tiny oil droplets floating on the coffee. Filtered coffee or instant coffee contains no or little diterpenes because the oil droplets have been removed."

Red wine

Antioxidants called polyphenols found in red wine have been known to have positive effects on the body.

In moderation, studies have shown red wine can reduce the risk of heart disease and even help slow the progression of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. But a few glasses too many can be linked to major diseases, including cancer.

Recently released Australian drinking guidelines recommend that men and women consume no more than two standard drinks a day to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury and disease.

The dietitian:

"Evidence suggests that a serve of red wine contains polyphenols and flavonoids which can help increase levels of good cholesterol in the bloodstream.

"In moderation, alcohol can be part of a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle, however drinking large amounts of alcohol can be harmful."

The doctor:

"It has been well documented that moderate amounts of alcohol can raise your good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) and thin your blood.

"Regular heavy drinking can cause cancer, cirrhosis (liver damage), high blood pressure, heart disorders, strokes and stomach ulcers.

"Alcohol in pregnancy can cause brain damage, low birth weight and deformities of the baby's face. Harm to the baby may occur with as little as several drinks per week."

The academic:

"Several studies have linked moderate red wine consumption to a decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases. This may be due to its antioxidant content (the polyphenols) and alcohol's ability to reduce blood glucose response to a meal.

"The're is evidence to show high consumption of alcoholic beverages is linked to several forms of cancer related to the gastrointestinal tract. Women are more susceptible than men."

Source: NEWS.com.au

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