Q&A: Coffee and Chocolate: Virtues or Vices?

Q: I can’t function without my morning coffee and I’m addicted to my 3pm chocolate break.  Are these habits really bad for my health?

A: While we tend to think of these dietary habits in negative terms–as “addictions” or “vices”– in fact, a compelling amount of evidence has built in the past few years suggesting that your habits would be, on balance, more health-promoting than health-compromising!

When it comes to coffee, the bulk of research supports that regular coffee intake among healthy people–even up to the 2-5 cup per day range– is associated with a variety of positive health outcomes compared to lower (or no) intake of coffee.  These include a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, lower risk of death from coronary heart disease, and even a reduced risk of developing gout among women.  Coffee may also confer a slight protective effect against certain cancers, however the evidence is not as strong as it is for other diseases. At the very least, we have no evidence to suggest coffee consumption increases the risk of any cancers.  Furthermore, sports nutrition research also suggests an athletic performance benefit from caffeine, for which coffee is obviously a good source.

There are some people, however, for whom regular or higher coffee intake may cause more harm than good, either because of its acidity or caffeine content.   These include people who regularly experience acid reflux/heartburn, insomnia, heart palpatations, or caffeine sensitivity.  For migraine sufferers, caffeinated coffee may demonstrate a dose-dependent effect: higher intakes (more than a cup or two of coffee per day) may trigger headaches, while lower doses can actually have a headache-relief effect.  Also, pregnant women are advised to moderate their coffee intake–though one caffeinated beverage per day appears to be perfectly safe.

As far as chocolate is concerned, so long as that daily habit isn’t pushing your weight into an unhealthy range, there is no reason to feel guilty!  Study after study has associated regular chocolate eating with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and, more recently, coronary heart disease, compared to infrequent chocolate eating.  This association is attributed to many factors, including chocolate’s high magnesium content and the ability of chocolate’s potent antioxidants to relax blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure.  Also, these antioxidant compounds combat both platelet aggregation and the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood–both of which can cause blockages in the arteries over time.  Finally, while critics point to the fact that chocolate contains saturated fat, in reality, the type of saturated fat in chocolate (called stearic acid) is the one kind of saturated fat that does NOT raise cholesterol levels.  (It’s quickly converted to unsaturated fat in our bodies as it’s metabolized).

While the strongest evidence exists for the benefits of dark chocolate consumption, there is also some evidence that milk chocolate may provide benefits as well.  However, white chocolate contains no beneficial antioxidant compounds at all–it’s primarily sugar and fat– and is not associated with any reduced risk of anything.  Effective chocolate doses vary by study, but generally speaking, eating 1 oz of dark chocolate every day or two appears to be more than enough to get the benefits without going overboard on calories.  Since excess dietary sugar intake has its own consequences, I recommend sticking with 1 oz portions of solid dark chocolate (65% cacao content or higher) or cacao nibs rather than filled chocolates or milk chocolate candies to satisfy your chocolate fix and reap the most benefits from your virtuous habit.

Best,

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN