Three Indulgences That May Be Healthy... or Not

Luckily, research shows that some of the indulgences we let ourselves enjoy may actually have health benefits. However, the information in the media can be confusing - and downright contradictory at times. So here's what the science really says.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
Beautiful happy lady drinking glass of red wine.
Beautiful happy lady drinking glass of red wine.

I first enjoyed wine in Paris on a summer abroad, under the guidance of a new friend from Portugal. Our only shared language was French - and the glass of Pouilly Fuisse we'd pour while people-watching on a lazy evening. Today, my evenings are a little more hectic: whipping up a quick dinner for my husband and toddler, scouring the house for my daughter's missing pink sippy cup, fitting in some playtime/dancing after dinner, potty and bedtime (for my toddler, not my husband), and cleaning up from that day just in time to get ready for the next.

But that moment of pouring myself a small glass of wine (post-toddler bedtime, pre-mommy bedtime)? It's like a portal to quieter times - my own small indulgence in the middle of a time in my life that is amazingly wonderful, but just a tad more chaotic.

So let's be clear: this article is NOT going to tell you to ban coffee, wine, and chocolate from your daily life. Because, while I'm a doctor, which means I want you to be your healthiest, I'm also a human being, and sometimes, we just Need. A. Moment.

Luckily, research shows that some of the indulgences we let ourselves enjoy may actually have health benefits. However, the information in the media can be confusing - and downright contradictory at times. So here's what the science really says.


"I can't function without coffee"- said almost every business executive, parent, student, and human being ever. (As a long-time coffee drinker, I have to disclose that I question the normalcy-and the fortitude-of people who don't need it).

The good: But what is our coffee habit doing for our health? As you've no doubt observed as you reach for a cup, caffeine can have brain-boosting powers: it's not only a stimulant, but it also blocks receptors for a chemical called adenosine, which allows brain-sparking chemicals to flow more freely. In fact, not only does caffeine temporarily improve energy and mental performance, it may slow age-related mental decline and reduce the risk of Parkinson's Disease.

So coffee is brain-approved; but what about physical health? Long-term moderate coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, and possibly with heart disease and stroke. It may even reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancer.

The bad: Certain groups need to be more cautious when it comes to coffee- including women who are pregnant, or anyone with difficulty controlling their blood pressure or blood sugar. Coffee has been linked to lower birth weight, and may raise the risk of miscarriage. It can also cause blood pressure increases, and, immediately after drinking, lower your sensitivity to insulin.

Watch what you're adding to your mug too-stick to a small amount of sugar and a little milk. Avoid flavor shots, whipped cream, and other add-ins that will negate all of the benefits of your cuppa.

The bottom line: I've basically just given you permission for that 5-times-a-day Keurig habit, right? Not so fast. The key word is "moderate". Most experts agree that around one to three cups a day is the sweet spot. Remember, that's three 8-ounce cups - not three Venti cups. Drink more than that (especially beyond five cups a day) and the benefits start to decline.

Have you been hearing about the Bulletproof Coffee trend? Check out my interview with creator Dave Asprey on the Sharecare Radio podcast.


You've probably heard that chocolate may have health benefits, but does this justify your sneaking-into-the-Halloween-leftovers habit?

The good: The good stuff is cocoa powder, a derivative of the cocoa bean. Cocoa powder contains flavanols: antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits that improve blood flow to the brain and heart. Flavanols have been associated with a lower risk of dementia and heart disease, although more research is needed before we can pinpoint them as the actual cause of the reduction (Sign me up for that study, right?)

The bad: Antioxidant-rich cocoa powder isn't the only ingredient in almost any commercial chocolate product. Even the darker, bitter chocolate bars usually contains some amount of cocoa butter and sugar, which are - you guessed it - loaded with calories and often with trans fat, and typically have less flavanols than used in those studies I mentioned. So in order to get enough flavanols to reap the antioxidant benefits, you're also going to have to consume a pretty hefty amount of calories, saturated fat, and sugar.

The bottom line: It's okay (and maybe even therapeutic!) to have a square or two of dark chocolate as a treat or with a snack. It's probably a healthier alternative than many other desserts. But you still can't justify sneaking your kids' Halloween candy for "health benefits".


Sensing a pattern? For each of these indulgences, a moderate amount is beneficial, but too much of a good thing becomes...well, a bad thing. That's especially the case when we look at wine.

The good: I'm sure by now that you've heard that "To Your Health!" has a ring of truth. Research shows that people who drink light to moderate amounts of wine tend to live longer and have lower rates of heart disease and stroke .

The bad: However, if you cross the threshold from "moderate" to "heavy" drinking, you reverse all of the benefits and can cause some serious harm. Excessive alcohol consumption is the 3rd leading cause of death in the US . I'm sure I don't need to repeat the dangers of driving while intoxicated - but one of the most dangerous aspects is one's inability to gage their impairment. In one study that simulated driving after giving participants alcohol, the higher the blood alcohol level, the better the participants thought they were driving. Other consequences of heavy alcohol ingestion include higher rates of drowning, lower quality of life overall, worse perceptions of one's own health, and higher rates of death from heart disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, and even some cancers, including breast.

The bottom line: When it comes to alcohol, it's all about walking on the safe side of a very thin line. In research looking at the benefits of safe, healthy drinking, "moderate drinking" for women is defined as less than 2 drinks per day, with heavy defined as 3 drinks in a single sitting, and binge drinking as 4 or more drinks. (For men, that's < 3 drinks per day for moderate, 4 drinks for heavy, and 5 drinks or more for binge). For most women, that "moderate" amount is a lot less than they previously thought.

And the language is even more confusing when considering the poor standardization for alcoholic drink sizes - in the U.S. a single drink is defined as 14-15 grams of alcohol, or the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. In other words, measure it out, and on this one, I say better safe than sorry - if you think your next drink might take you over the "safe" line, don't push it.

So what's the bottom (bottom) line for all of these? None of the science behind these things are so convincing that if you don't already "indulge" in them, your doing poorly by your health by not starting. But if you do enjoy any of these, rest easy, knowing that doing so in moderation is not only good for the soul, it's good for the body.

Dr. Darria is the SVP of Clinical Strategy at Sharecare, a health and wellness engagement platform that provides people with personalized resources to help them live their healthiest lives. Follow her on Twitter and listen to the Sharecare Radio podcast for more health and wellness information.


Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.