Muiris Houston: Eat chocolate, drink wine and don’t fret over your festive diet

It is almost upon us. The annual Christmas break is synonymous with eating, drinking and merriment. Whether you have diabetes or have been prescribed a calorie- controlled diet, some loosening of a regimen that rules the other 51 weeks of the year is in order.

Science eventually caught up with their wisdom and there is now extensive evidence for the health benefits of a moderate alcohol intake.

Binge drinking, however, is definitely not a good idea, so best to pace your intake over the 12 days of Christmas. And while all forms of alcohol have anti-inflammatory properties, red wine remains top of the healthy alcohol league table.

A moderate intake can reduce the risk of heart attack by at least 25 per cent, prevent cancer and boost sexual functioning. The reason for this is the presence of antioxidants.



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. What about other drinks?

A 10-year study of 3,000 Australians found that those who had a beer a day were 20 per cent less likely than teetotallers to die of heart disease.

A pint of beer contains about a tenth of the recommended daily allowance of the vitamin niacin. Dark beers also contain high levels of folic acid.

Whiskey also contains antioxidants, derived from the oak barrels it is matured in.

Vodka is a pure form of alcohol with a low toxin content. Because it has almost no colouring or flavouring, it is theoretically less likely to cause a severe hangover.

What about chocolate over the holiday period?

The dark stuff is definitely good for you – anything with more than 50 per cent cocoa has health benefits linked to some of the chemicals found in dark chocolate.

For those concerned about putting on weight, it seems two to three pieces are sufficient to improve mood and help relaxation.

Earlier this year there was something of a scare when research emerged questioning the benefits of red wine and dark chocolate.


A study of Italians who consume a diet rich in resveratrol – a compound found in red wine, dark chocolate and berries – found they live no longer than, and are just as likely to develop cardiovascular disease or cancer as those who eat or drink smaller amounts of the antioxidant.

But resveratrol is not the only antioxidant contained in red wine and chocolate.

Polyphenols and other compounds could be responsible for the significant reduction in heart disease associated with chocolate and wine consumption noted in other studies.

Festive food

There is even a suggestion of health benefits from some of our festive food: skinless turkey meat is low in calories and high in protein; eating nine Brussels sprouts provides half our daily requirement of folic acid and all our vitamin C needs; and herbs such as oregano, thyme and rosemary have a high antioxidant content.

So for the next week or so why not adopt the following mantra: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we diet.

Have a great Christmas.