We all have times when we want indulgence purely for pleasure, and often it takes the form of coffee, chocolate, and wine, beer and spirits. But are these so-called ‘guilty pleasures’ really so bad?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with coffee or chocolate, how we indulge can be a problem. Alcohol is different though, as it has known cancer risks.

Coffee

We are a nation of coffee connoisseurs. We like the aroma, the flavour and the hit – but recent studies indicate 29 percent of us believe we drink more coffee than we should.

Caffeine is a stimulant. We use it to get going in the morning and for a boost in the afternoon. It stimulates the release of adrenalin and makes us more alert.

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Constantly topping up adrenalin can trigger anxiety, or ‘jitters’, and too much caffeine can affect sleep.

Coffee is high in antioxidants, which help to protect our cells from damaging free radicals. Some studies suggest caffeine may help us fight cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Beware of extras – while milky coffee can boost calcium levels, cream, sugar and flavourings have no health benefits.

Moderate coffee consumption (up to three cups a day) appears to have no lasting negative health effect. However, it is not recommended for children or for pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Chocolate

Would you like a chocolate with your coffee?

Chocolate is high in fat and sugar, which should get our health alarm bells ringing. But some chocolate, in moderation, may even be good for us.

Its key ingredient is cocoa, which contains biologically active phenolic compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. More of these compounds are found in dark chocolate with a cocoa percentage of 70 percent or more.

For many of us, chocolate is the comfort food we turn to in times of stress or to console ourselves. It’s a mood enhancer and makes us feel better.

Evidence is emerging that dark chocolate may even be beneficial for heart health, cholesterol levels and cognitive function.

Dark chocolate can be high in minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc, and is often lower in fat and sugar (but not always, so check the label).

It appears there’s nothing wrong with enjoying chocolate in small amounts (50 grams to 100 grams a week).

Alcohol

Alcohol is a carcinogen, with a proven link to some cancers. In its 2018 Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists the consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. There is no safe amount to drink. Nevertheless, many of us drink alcohol regularly.

Advice from the Ministry of Health is that women have no more than two standard drinks a day and no more than 10 a week and men have no more than three a day and no more than 15 a week; and that men and women have at least two alcohol-free days a week.

A standard drink is 30ml of spirits (45 percent alcohol), 330ml beer (4 percent alcohol) and 100ml wine (12.5 percent alcohol). Alcohol should not be taken during pregnancy.

Red wine is often said to be good for us – those phenolic compounds again – and it is reported to have benefits for heart health. However, this may be true only for moderate drinkers, and the cancer link is still there.

Many people think drinks such as dry wine, vodka or low-carbohydrate beer are low in calories. This is not true. Alcohol has seven calories for each gram of alcohol, so even a low-carb beer still has a similar alcohol content to that of a standard beer and is just as high in calories. (Low-alcohol wine or beer has fewer calories.)

Of course, there is more to coffee, chocolate or alcoholic drinks than their nutritional value or otherwise – they have a social function. After all, we generally like to enjoy these treats with friends, and it’s important to take time to relax and socialise.

So, as part of a healthy, balanced diet – and in moderation – we can continue to enjoy our guilty pleasures.

Fiona Boyle is a New Zealand registered dietitian and nutritionist and the owner of Food Solutions in Tauranga.

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