6 Not-So-Guilty Pleasures

6 Not-So-Guilty Pleasures

If you feel guilty about the decadent foods you eat and beverages you consume, you’re in good company. Thanks to lower levels of a brain enzyme called COMT, women are hardwired to worry, suggests research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Although some of this worrying can help keep you healthy—assuming it helps you to consume fewer artery-clogging saturated and trans fats—much of it is misguided. All too often, we feel guilty about eating foods that actually aren’t all that bad. In fact, some of these guilty pleasures can actually be healthy snacks. So with a glass of wine and a handful of nuts in hand, savor the news you’re about to read—and put those worries to rest!

The low-carb trend has led millions of Americans to swear off refined-flour pies, cakes, cookies, and their ilk. That’s good, because refined carbs are practically devoid of nutrients and are often loaded with unhealthy trans and saturated fats. But don’t cut out the “good” carbs—unrefined, whole grain breads and cereals—which new research confirms are essential for fighting off major diseases.

A Tufts University study of 3,000 people found that those who averaged three daily whole grain servings were 33% less likely to have metabolic syndrome—a strong diabetes and heart disease risk factor—than were those eating less than one serving a week. The American average? Less than one serving a day.

Worried all of these carbs will make you fat? Nonsense. You can slash your odds for extra pounds in half if you eat the whole grain, high-fiber versions of your favorite carbs such as bread, cereal, and rice. The proof: In a Harvard study of 74,000 women, those who ate more than two daily servings of whole grains were 49% less likely to be overweight than those who noshed on the virtually fiberless white stuff.

The weight control secrets of high-fiber carbs: They burn more calories during digestion, help you feel full longer, and trigger less fat-storing insulin than refined carbs. “Adding whole grains to your diet doesn’t require drastic changes, and the benefits can be enormous,” says researcher Nicola McKeown, PhD.

Healthy Snack: Chocolate

It’s sweet, creamy, decadent, loaded with calories, and oh so good for you. Experts have long known that dark chocolate contains heart-healthy substances, known as polyphenol flavonoids. Recent research shows that these substances directly help to improve the functioning of the endothelium, a layer of cells in arteries (including those in the heart) that prevents plaque buildup and protects against high blood pressure.

After 16 volunteers each munched a 3.5-oz bar of extra dark chocolate, ultrasound scans revealed better bloodflow for the next 3 hours, a study from Athens Medical School found. Other research suggests that eating 3 oz of dark chocolate per day could lower blood pressure.

Worried that one bite (or smell) of chocolate will make you go overboard, resulting in weight gain? Try this chocolate-eating tactic, suggested by Geneen Roth, the author of six books on emotional eating. The next time you eat a piece of chocolate, sit down. Remember that one piece tastes no different than 20 pieces. Focus on the taste in your mouth. Allow yourself to notice how it feels on the roof of your mouth, your tongue, the sides of your cheeks, and in your throat. Notice whether it tastes like you thought it would. Enjoy it thoroughly.

Healthy Drink: Coffee

You’ve probably heard that you should switch from coffee to green tea in order to save your heart and prevent cancer. If you’ve always thought “yuck” when you heard such advice, you’ll love this news. Research shows that coffee may contain healing antioxidants as well, preventing colon cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. An alkaloid in coffee may even prevent cavities!

Studies also show that drinking coffee helps reduce muscle soreness and improves stamina. (If you have high blood pressure, avoid coffee before exercise.) Finally, contrary to popular belief, coffee won’t leave you parched—provided you don’t overdo it. One study found that people who drink fewer than three 5-oz cups a day experience absolutely no diuretic effect.

Rather than downing a big jolt of espresso in the morning, dose yourself with about 2 oz of regular coffee every hour throughout the day. That regimen gradually builds up blood levels of caffeine, keeping you on your toes all day long, Harvard Medical School researchers say. The tactic helped eight sleep-deprived 18- to 30-year-old guys perform better on mental calculations and reaction-time tests and doze off less frequently than eight sleep- and coffee-deprived guys did.

Healthy Condiment: Fatty Salad Dressing

Feeling proud of your commitment to fat-free salad dressing? Reconsider. New research has found that none of the lycopene or alpha- or beta-carotene that fight cancer and heart disease is absorbed from salads with fat-free dressing. Only slightly more is absorbed with reduced-fat dressing; the most is absorbed with full-fat dressing.

In the 12-week study at Iowa State University, seven people ate salads of leafy greens, cherry tomatoes, and carrots, topped with Italian dressings containing 2 tablespoons of canola oil, 1 teaspoon, or none. Blood samples collected every 60 minutes for 12 hours documented nutrient absorption. Exception: Choose fat-free dressings if you top salads with fatty cheese, bacon bits, egg yolk, or avocados, which all aid nutrient absorption.

Healthy Snack: Nuts

Although nuts are high in calories and fat, they contain a good, heart-healthy fat. More important, the form of vitamin E (gamma-tocopherol) found in nuts and plant seeds—but not in most supplements—may slow the growth of cancer cells.

In a study at Purdue University, researchers found that gamma-tocopherol inhibited human prostate and lung cancer cell division in the lab, while leaving healthy cells alone. It’s too soon to say how much gamma-tocopherol humans need, but now there’s one more reason to munch on walnuts and pecans.

Healthy Cocktail: Wine and Beer

One alcoholic drink a day may cut your risk of heart attack, clot-caused strokes, diabetes, insulin resistance, and some types of dementia. One drink equals 5 oz of wine, 12 oz of beer, or 1 1⁄2 oz of an 80-proof spirit.

For best disease protection, choose either red wine or dark beer. Resveratrol, a compound found in the skins of red grapes (and consequently red wine), blocks a key protein that cancer cells need to survive; without it, they starve to death, University of Virginia researchers found. The scientists dosed human cancer cells with resveratrol at a level approximating the amount of the compound they’d be exposed to inside a human body.

Darker beer is richer in healthy plant chemicals called polyphenols; in some research, it stopped platelets—the building blocks of clots—from sticking together in the blood of all six dogs that drank it. Light-colored beer fed to six other dogs blocked clots in only two. University of Wisconsin Medical School scientists say it may be the polyphenols, not the alcohol, that account for beer’s apparent ability to help reduce heart disease risk in dog’s best friend.