Ask a nutrition major: Valentine’s Day indulgences can be healthy in moderation

Stacey Arnold

I have just recently heard that wine and chocolate are good for you — does this mean that I can guiltlessly indulge on Valentine’s Day this weekend? 

  • -Hopeful Romantic

Scientists celebrate Valentine’s Day too. Their research shows that chocolate and wine possess some health benefits, according to the journal Circulation. Guiltless indulgences? Probably not. But you can certainly enjoy these treats in moderation on Valentine’s Day.

Chocolate and wine have antioxidants, which limit the damage caused by free radicals in the body. Free radicals are harmful molecules that the body produces naturally. They are exacerbated by activities such as smoking and sunbathing, as well as exposure to pesticides, according to the Pharmacognosy Review. 

Free radicals steal electrons away from any nearby substance, which damages cells in the body, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Antioxidants are compounds that limit the damage of free radicals. In chocolate, these antioxidants are called flavanols. Cocoa beans, the main ingredient in chocolate, are super rich in flavanols. Because cocoa beans are processed in a variety of ways, the flavanol content varies among different chocolate products. 

The percentage label on your chocolate bar’s packaging indicates how much of the cocoa bean, and therefore flavanols are inside. Rule of thumb: the higher the percentage, the better. This is why dark chocolate is a healthy choice compared to milk chocolate and white chocolate.  Do you find dark chocolate unpalatable? The flavanols give dark chocolate its bitter taste.  

So why the fuss over flavanols? Flavanols relax the walls of blood vessels, according to The Journal of Clinical Hypertension. Strong, healthy blood vessels allow blood to flow easily throughout the body — reducing the risk for heart attack and stroke. Additionally, a study published in Hypertension shows that high cocoa flavanol consumption in older individuals is associated with improved cognitive function. Scientists found significant memory improvements in subjects that consumed medium flavanol-rich cocoa drinks for eight weeks.

Despite all of these attributes, you must remember that chocolate is high in calories, saturated fat and sugar, so it’s important to watch your intake. There are about 170 calories in one ounce. In addition, chocolate is sometimes associated with migraines and gastrointestinal discomfort, as mentioned in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension ­— so consider avoiding it altogether if you have experience with these problems. 

Now, the vino. You should consume alcohol in moderation. “Moderation” means up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Note that one drink is equivalent to five fluid ounces of wine — not half the bottle. 

Red wine consumption improves cholesterol levels and decreases the risk of blood clots, according to a 2007 study published in Annals of Epidemiology. But hold the bottle — the Harvard School of Public Health published more recent research in 2015 that indicated light to moderate drinking can produce a small increased cancer risk in men and women.

So to answer your question shortly and sweetly: as with anything else, chocolate and wine can have a place in your diet. Gorging can quickly negate the health benefits of these Valentine’s Day staples, but a five ounce glass of your favorite Merlot and a few Hershey’s kisses will not break your heart.