Yes, this lovely photo of walnuts, dark chocolate, and red wine against the backdrop of Christmas was my real dinner.
This was several weeks ago. Hubby was traveling. I’d worked a long clinic day, and had just picked the kids up from my mother’s. My school-age kids ended up with yogurt, fruit, and cereal, while I ended up with this dinner of champions.
But it’s not a bad dinner, from a nutrition standpoint. Actually, I was rather proud of what I’d put together, for cardiovascular reasons.
After all, I’ve done my research: I’ve just published a book on this! Healthy Habits for Your Heart is a behavior change focused evidence-based diet and lifestyle book for heart health. I was a bit insane about including the supporting science, so the references section is way larger than the publishers wanted. The first section of the book is all about how our behaviors impact our heart health, and how to approach habit change. Then, for each suggested diet and lifestyle habit, I’ve included tips to make it stick.
From Chapter 5, Eat For Your Life: Nutrition Habits, here is the lowdown on nuts, chocolate, and wine:
#34: Eat Four Servings of Nuts Per Week
Nuts are good for your heart and your life. Research shows that eating four servings of nuts per week was associated with a significantly lower risk of having coronary heart disease (19 percent) or any type of cardiovascular disease (28 percent). ere was also a significantly lower risk of dying from coronary heart disease (22 percent), cardiovascular disease (22 percent), sudden cardiac death (75 percent), or anything at all (19 percent). e studies looked at tree nuts (which include almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts) as well as peanuts (which are technically a legume but nutritionally similar to tree nuts).
Per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI):
- 1⁄3 cup nuts (equal to 11⁄2 ounces)
- 2 tablespoons nut butter
Tips to Make the Habit Stick:
- Regularly stock up on nuts, but keep budget in mind. Nuts are cheaper when bought in larger quantities or ordered online. Shop around for your favorite sources.
- Nuts can go rancid. Store them in airtight containers. Glass is ideal.
- Make a portion of your favorite nuts a regular go-to snack. Have
some in your bag or desk at work at all times.
- Get in the habit of adding a handful of nuts to your meals, be it
yogurt, oatmeal, salads, or stir-fries.
- Try these recipes: Apple Cinnamon Walnut Overnight Oats; Fill-
ing Fruit and Nut Bowl with Greek Yogurt; Nutty Tabbouleh Salad (in Appendix A).
#35: Enjoy Two To Three Servings of Dark Chocolate Per Week
The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa flavanols it has. Milk chocolate sometimes has barely any (it can range from 10–50 percent) and also tends to have more unhealthy fat added. For this reason, I recommend only dark chocolate (at least 60 percent cacao, though the darker the better) and only a small amount. One serving is two small squares (about 50–60 grams total), and science suggests that two or three servings per week provide the most benefit.
Do you like chocolate, but not dark chocolate? It is less sweet but definitely much better for you than milk chocolate. e intense cocoa taste is what can help prevent us from overeating this calorie-dense treat. Start with a small amount and build up over time. The less milk chocolate you eat, the more dark chocolate will begin to taste like normal chocolate to you.
Tips to Make the Habit Stick:
- Add a teaspoon of pure unsweetened cocoa powder to your co ee in the morning for a mocha treat.
- Use only dark chocolate chips or chunks (60 percent or higher cacao) in baking and cooking.
- Try these recipes: Dark Chocolate–Dipped Strawberries; Orange Pistachio Dark Chocolate Bark; Cherry Chocolate Overnight Oats (in Appendix A).
- Use pure unsweetened cocoa powder in your savory cooking as well. Try the Antioxidant Chili recipe in Appendix A.
- If you have a tendency to eat more than a serving (two small squares), consider buying only small amounts at a time or dividing what you buy into serving sizes as soon as you get home.
#42: Limit Alcohol, Although A Small Amount Daily Can Be Heart-Protective
People who drink a small amount of alcohol every day tend to have lower risk of coronary heart disease when compared to people who don’t drink or to people who drink heavily. Research shows that light drinking can lower the risk of developing heart disease a great deal (between 40 and 70 percent) and also lower the risk of related diseases such as strokes, aortic aneurysms, and peripheral arterial disease. Wine (red wine especially) seems to be the best choice, though the protective e ect is seen with all types of alcohol. e active component in red wine is thought to be an antioxidant plant nutrient called resveratrol, but studies that have isolated this compound and given it to participants as a supplement have not shown any promising results to date. (Of note, that seems to be the case with all supplements.)
For all of these reasons, the American Heart Association recommends that people do not start drinking alcohol as a means to lower their heart disease risk.
For people who can safely drink, and who partake regularly, here is what is recommended:
Men: No more than one to two drinks per day
Women: No more than one drink per day
Definition of a Drink:
- 5 ounces of wine
- 12 ounces of beer
- 11⁄2 ounces of 80-proof spirits
- 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits
Tips to Make the Habit Stick:
- Hydrate well before you have any alcohol. If you’re thirsty, you may unintentionally drink too much too quickly.
- Measure out your drink (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer) and then put the bottle or six-pack away.
- If you’re having mixed drinks, specify how much hard liquor you want and watch the bartender measure. Some bartenders are a lit- tle heavy-handed with the bottle.
- If you’re entertaining, mix up a pitcher of a tempting mocktail and have plenty of healthy and delicious appetizers on hand. It’s good for you and everyone else as well.
- Try the Bubbly Minty Mojito Mocktail recipe in Appendix A.
Another study found… Y.Q. Weng et al., “Association Between Nut Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease: A Meta-analysis,” Coronary Artery Disease 27(3), May 2016, pp. 227–232.
Research has consistently… E. Higginbotham and P.R. Taub, “Cardiovascular Bene ts of Dark Chocolate?,” Current Treatment Options in Cardiovascular Medicine 17(12), December 2015, p. 54 and S. Yuan et al., “Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: A Meta- analysis of Prospective Studies,” Nutrients 9(7), 2017, p. 688
and C.S. Kwok et al., “Habitual Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease among Healthy Men and Women,”
Heart 101(16), August 2015, pp. 1,279–1,287.
P.E. Ronksley et al., “Association of Alcohol Consumption with Selected Cardiovascular Disease Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” e BMJ 342, 22 February 2011, p. d671.
Alcohol can also… C. Tangney et al., “Cardiac Benefits and Risks
… UpToDate, updated March 2018, https://www.uptodate.com/ contents/cardiovascular-benefits- and-risks-of-moderate-alcohol- consumption.