Healthy Aging

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'Tis the Season to Eat, Drink and Be Merry

It is holiday time again and we all know what that means. Countless parties with even more opportunities to over indulge just in time for the New Year when we can promise to go on a diet and start that elusive exercise plan we know we should be following.

Knowing what we know about human will power and good intentions, it has been suggested that we review a few of the tips for eating with the holidays coming up and a strategy for the inevitable array of festive parties coming our way.

Rather than list all the do not's that everyone tires of hearing, how about listing just a few of the healthful things one should try? Of course there is a long list of those good things to eat, like fruits and vegetables, but how often do they show up on the cocktail party table? Not often (but those of you planning a party can provide them!).

Eat

We won't dwell on all of the things to avoid. However, it is best to stay clear of the crackers, processed foods, and all the enticing cheeses. Just eat the meat that is lean or fresh fish that is plated. Then head directly for the almonds and disdain the breads and cheeses if you know what is good for you! Almonds are one of the party nuts that are quite healthy to eat. Almonds contain many of the minerals we need and are a particularly high source of magnesium and Vitamin E that are good for the heart and vessels. They also have protein and good fats. Finally, they are a remarkably good source of potassium without the sodium that can contribute to high blood pressure.

Almonds and other nuts contain antioxidants that preserve heart and blood vessel function. The other nuts most recommended are walnuts, pecans and chestnuts. Even the peanut (which is not really a nut: it is a legume) is a good source of antioxidants.

What quantity of nuts should you eat? It is recommended that we eat a good handful (quarter cup) of nuts at least four times a week. Peanut butter is also an acceptable dietary source of nut goodness, but when is the last party you attended where peanut butter was served? The scientific literature has shown that if one consumes this many nuts, heart attacks can be reduced by about 30 percent compared to people who don't eat nuts.

Dark Chocolate

Something sweet to end the party is always nice. However, precious little offered is going to be healthy and much of it is not only fattening but, if eaten in any significant amount, can be downright unhealthy. There is one exception that has gotten a lot of good publicity, and that is dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is defined as 60 to 70 percent cocoa and this is the ingredient that confers the health benefit. Actually, it is the flavonoids in the cocoa that do the work of protecting the heart by raising the HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering the LDL (bad). The flavonoids are antioxidants and this is the mechanism by which they confer heart protection.

Cocoa is highest in dark chocolate and found much less in white or milk chocolate. So if you can't find dark chocolate, then it is best to stay clear of the chocolate treats. How much chocolate should one eat? One standard chocolate bar is what the studies have examined, but it is very important to remember that chocolate is extremely high in calories - so if you eat it, don't eat much else or the calorie count will soar, and that means weight gain. Thus, a very small portion to quench the desire for something sweet is the way to proceed.

Drink

Actually, a little alcohol with food is good for your health, if you are a drinker. If you don't drink alcohol, don't start now. What is a little? A little is termed a "moderate" amount, which may be portioned as: a glass of wine (5 ounces), a bottle of beer (12 ounces), a "drink" (1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, such as scotch whiskey). If you are a woman this is all you get and twice that much for a man (two glasses of wine, two beers, or two liquor drinks). Having said this, the alcohol should be accompanied by food for a number of reasons, including that this has been proven the most effective way to get the health benefits.

What are the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption? They include lowering the "bad" cholesterol or LDL, raising the "good" cholesterol or HDL, and potentially improving blood flow to the brain and heart.

If one is offered alcohol (and I can't remember the last holiday party when that didn't happen), which beverage is the best to consume in moderation? The prevailing opinion is that red wine is better than white wine, beer or distilled alcohol because it has flavonoids that are antioxidants. The other alcohol beverages in moderation have been shown to be healthful, but red wine is probably a bit better.

The LARGE caveat to this recommendation is that the alcohol must be consumed in moderation. Once one goes beyond the gender-specific recommendation, then you stray into the territory where the more you consume the less good it is for the liver, brain, pancreas, not to mention the waist line and impaired ability to drive an automobile. So once you have ingested one or two drinks, head for the red or purple grapes if there are any. The grapes have the same ingredients as red wine and none of the harmful effects of the alcohol!

The Bottom Line

As we approach the holiday season with all those parties, make a mental note of how to get through them with a healthier heart and appropriate weight. The strategy is to go nuts, drink a moderate amount of red wine, consume a little bit of dark chocolate and then go home! Your spouse or friends might think you unsociable, but at least you will be back next year!

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