How some of your Christmas diet may actually be good for you

A glass of red wine, perhaps? Some dark chocolate, almonds and cocoa? Yes you can

How are your Christmas preparations going? Many readers will already have had their first taste of festive fare but the real feasting has yet to start. As I consider guilt to be a useless emotion, this week’s column will look to preempt any emotional hurdles by looking at some of the latest evidence for the health benefits of the food and drink we will be consuming over the next two weeks.

However, one important caveat: much of the research in this field is carried out by chocolate manufacturers and other food producers so it is important to take it with a pinch (but not a tablespoon) of salt as well as a tincture (but not a gallon) of your favourite tipple.

One of the latest studies to hand says that incorporating almonds, dark chocolate, and cocoa into a healthy diet may help reduce a risk factor for coronary heart disease. In a relatively small trial, US researchers found that eating nearly one-third cup of almonds a day, combined with almost one-quarter cup of dark chocolate and a little more than two tablespoons of cocoa had a beneficial effect on bad cholesterol. LDL-cholesterol particles are the bad boys that fur up the arteries that supply the heart.

It’s the flavonoids in chocolate, almonds and cocoa that produce the beneficial effect. And the study was also interesting in that it focused on obese and overweight middle-aged adults with already elevated levels of LDL-cholesterol. What’s needed now is a much larger study that measures not just changes in cholesterol but whether the diet actually reduces the number of heart attacks or not.


White wine does contain some antioxidants and it also has an antibacterial effect, so its health-boosting capacity should not be dismissed

Flavonoids are just one type of antioxidant. An average bottle of red wine contains more than 200 of these chemical compounds. They mop up free radicals, dangerous compounds that attack cells and cause disease. The reason antioxidants occur more frequently in red wine is that they are found mainly in the skin of the grape; those grapes grown in warm, moist environments have the most antioxidants.

White wine does contain some antioxidants, however, and it also has an antibacterial effect, so its health-boosting capacity should not be dismissed.

An interesting study compared the heart health benefits of red wine and gin. It found both drinks had anti-inflammatory effects, but the compounds in red wine were more powerful and, in some cases, were absent from gin, meaning it had a reduced ability to prevent the build-up of plaques in the walls of arteries.

Antioxidants have recently been linked to a reduced risk of developing diabetes. The results of a French study  show that diabetes risk diminished with increased antioxidant consumption up to a level of 15 mmol/day, above which the effect reached a plateau. Increasing dietary antioxidants to this level could be achieved through consuming  antioxidant-rich foods such as dark chocolate, tea, walnuts, prunes, blueberries, strawberries or hazelnuts, the researchers said.

I promise I haven’t opened that Christmas bottle of port while writing but could dietary change actually slow down the ageing process? A 2013 landmark study showed that a clearance of “senescent” cells – dysfunctional cells which build up as we age and cause damage to tissue – improved healthy lifespan in laboratory mice. Now researchers from the University of Brighton say they have found a way to rejuvenate these “old” cells by treating them with compounds based on resveratrol, an antioxidant  found in red wine, berries and other foods. They hope to show that these compounds will delay frailty in humans.

At this point I should say that any Dorian Grays out there who think my Christmas dietary advice has halted the ageing process  will have to undergo rigorous testing by Irish Times scientists; before and after photographs simply won't cut it, I'm afraid.

However, I would encourage all of you to cut loose to some degree and enjoy the festive season!