"Bad" Foods That Aren't So Bad

| by Larissa Tater, under Wellness

Below, you’ll find five foods that have a bad rap but good qualities.

Chocolate has fallen from grace and risen again many times. From taking a toll because of sugar content to making a comeback because of its antioxidant properties, many of us have a love/hate relationship with chocolate.

Growing evidence, however, links a daily dose of chocolate (in the form of cocoa powder, with no sugar or milk) to reduced blood pressure and lower body weight. It may also help prevent cancer.

Cocoa powder is loaded with antioxidants, called polyphenols. Microbes in your gut feed off of the polyphenols and break them down into molecules small enough to be absorbed into the blood. These broken-down compounds help reduce inflammation and stress in the blood vessels, and when microbes break down the fiber of the cocoa powder, they form short, fatty chain acids that get absorbed and can have an effect on satiety.

So go ahead. Eat your chocolate without the guilt. You can sprinkle cocoa powder on your oatmeal or add it to a smoothie for a little boost. (Source

Before we begin talking about the health benefits of alcohol, it’s important to note that the possible health benefits may not outweigh the risks, so if you do not drink alcohol, it’s best not to start.

With that begin said, moderate alcohol consumption, for those who already drink alcohol, may provide some health benefits. Moderate alcohol consumption may reduce your risk of developing and dying from heart disease, possibly reduce your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow), and possibly reduce your risk of diabetes.

Moderate alcohol use in healthy adults consists of one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and no more than two drinks a day for men younger than 65.

Examples of one drink include:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
  • Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)

Moderate alcohol use is the most beneficial if you are an older adult with existing risk factors for heart disease. Middle-aged to younger adults may experience more harm than good when consuming moderate amounts of alcohol. (Source)

While our bodies can do without chocolate and alcohol, salt is one of those demonized ingredients that our body must have to survive. Unfortunately, when we get too much of it (and many of us do), it can lead to serious health problems, so it lands on our “bad” list.

Salt helps maintain the fluid in our blood cells and is used to transmit information in our nerves and muscles. It is also used in the uptake of certain nutrients from our small intestines. The body cannot make salt; therefore, we rely on food to ensure that we get the required intake.

Our kidneys naturally balance the amount of salt, or sodium, stored in our bodies, but when we get too much, the sodium enters our blood stream. Sodium attracts and holds water, so when it enters our blood stream, this causes our blood volume to increase, which can make our hearts work harder and increase pressure on our arteries. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day, or 1,500 mg if you’re older than age 51, or if you’re African American, have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The average American gets approximately 3,400 mg of sodium a day. (Source

Like salt, our bodies also need sugar (or glucose) to survive; but also like salt, many of us ingest more sugar than is recommended, and this can increase the risk of several diseases, including diabetes. 

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that comes in a variety of forms, and once eaten, converts to glucose during digestion, which is used to meet your immediate energy needs or is stored in your muscles and liver to use for fuel later.

We run into trouble, however, when we begin eating foods with excess "added sugar”. The World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10% of our daily sugar intake come from added sugar, but when sugar is used in so many of our processed and packaged foods, it’s hard to understand just how much added sugar we are ingesting. 

Checking the ingredient list of the foods you buy can help keep your sugar levels balanced. You will need to look at more than just the sugar section of the nutrition label, however. A product with what appears to have a lot of sugar does not automatically deem it “bad”. If the word “sugar" is listed in the top five ingredients of the product you are buying, that product is made up largely of added sugar. If the top five ingredients come from milk or fruit, then the product includes natural sugar. (Source

Like sugar, our bodies need fat for energy. Fat is also required to transport vitamins A, D, E, and K, produce hormones, store energy, maintain healthy skin, and protect organs. While every person needs fat in their diet, just like with sugar and salt, the amount of fat we eat determines our health.

For the past 40 years, we have demonized saturated fat as a risk for heart disease due to studies that showed that saturated fat increased LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), which led to the assumption that this increased the risk of heart disease. These studies brought on the fat-free craze, which left the unintended consequences of obesity and diabetes due to eating an abundance of carbohydrates (think fat-free bagels and low-fat cookies). 

However, after all of these years, new studies have determined that there is insufficient evidence to support the link that saturated fat increases the risk for heart disease, and there is little evidence that you should consume saturated fats in low amounts. 

Experts now tell us that we can’t take a reductionist approach when it comes to our health. Healthful diets include whole foods of all kinds, but with a focus on variety (fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, oils) and a reduction in processed foods. However, keep in mind that too many calories from any source can lead to weight gain, and extra weight leads to heart disease. (Source

The bottom line: we get vital nutrients from a variety of sources, but when we go overboard, we get into the trouble. Eating a variety of whole foods and staying away from processed foods (the perfect place to find extra sodium and sugar) will help keep our bodies functioning properly and keep us heathy.

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