• Mind-Body Foods and Health: Alcohol, Chocolate, Tea

    According to research, drinking moderately may reduce risk of disease and mortality.  This week, it is linked to a reduced risk of heart failure.  Not drinking or drinking too much is supposed to be worse than moderate drinking in terms of risk of disease.  This is often shown in association studies (observational studies).  Not cause and effect studies.

    Chocolate is also supposed to be good for you.  Scientific opinion states that 200 mg daily has a cause-effect relationship on endothelial cell-dependent vasodilation (widening) of blood vessels.  Observational studies show it can affect memory, heart disease, stroke, and cholesterol levels.

    Drinking tea has been associated with anticancer properties and blood pressure reduction.

    I have issues with all of these topics, so this post is going to give you my personal opinion on all of them.

    I stay up to date reading the news releases of the latest studies through various channels.  It can sometimes take me 2-3 hours a day to get through it all.  Combine this with my nine years of nutrition and exercise education and training as well as professional practice, I have developed some pretty opinionated thoughts when I hear news on alcohol being good for you or chocolate being good for you.

    Here’re my thoughts on these topics:

    Alcohol

    Nutrition biochemistry says that alcohol can impair B-vitamin absorption and enhance pro-oxidant absorption since it messes with the integrity of the epithelium of the intestines.  Alcoholics are often deficient in thiamine, which is vitamin B1.  Pro-oxidants are the opposite of antioxidants.  One gives an electron and the other receives an electron.

    Alcohol forces the liver to detoxify it immediately.  This is one of the few cases I will actually use the word ‘detox’ because it is appropriately used.

    Alcohol is empty calories.  It does absolutely no good for your body as a chemical itself.  It is not a necessary nutrient.  It probably isn’t helping you control your weight.  Yet we make it harder on ourselves because some consider you weird if you don’t drink alcohol.

    People can become alcoholics from alcohol.  It is used as a way to deal with their issues.  This is so common it is shown in movies and on TV.  You can get withdrawal from it.  It can cause liver cirrhosis, or liver scarring.

    Because 71% of people drink alcohol, it is expected in most social gatherings.  It is a socially acceptable drug to use publicly.  Conversely, it is often perceived as socially unacceptable to not be drinking alcohol.

    So, with all these things we know about how negative alcohol is to humans, SOMEHOW the studies show that moderate drinking could be good for us, NOT drinking is bad for us, and drinking too much is very bad for us.  There is a J-curve with alcohol consumption.  How does this add up?

    The explanation I assert is that it isn’t the alcohol that is making people healthier.  It is the socialization, which is not controlled for in observational (association) studies because MOST people drink with other people at dinner parties or out on the town.

    Think about it.  People who drink are out on the town having fun.  Being out on the town involves walking, which is physical activity that counts.  They aren’t depressed and sitting at home being sedentary.  Depressed and sitting at home is often associated with other negative behaviors in itself, such as overeating or drinking alone, and feeling left out.

    People who don’t drink can feel pressured to defend their abstinence in social situations, depending on the person.  It can make for a very uncomfortable social experience to be assailed with questions on why someone isn’t drinking when being out.  A Google search of “why is not drinking weird” brings up many posts that can explain the mentality of those who choose not to drink and how it affects their life and other people’s perceptions of it.  Ovik Banerjee wrote a nice post on not drinking’s downstream social effects that got some great comments.

    Having fun, laughing, and bonding with others relaxes blood vessels on its own because stress is low so the nervous system is less likely to be constricting your blood vessels.

    Perhaps the small amount of alcohol that people feel is necessary for them to have in order to have fun, laugh, and bond with others doesn’t negatively outweigh the benefits of having fun, laughing, and bonding with others.  It may not outweigh the excitement of meeting someone new, being on a date, or being with people you like.

    Alcohol is supposed to ward off cognitive decline, magically somehow.  I say this is because people who are drinking alcohol are socializing, which is actually a complex phenomenon of listening to other people, interpreting what they say, reflecting on it based on your own experience, and responding with empathy.  The alternative, sitting alone home by yourself, is probably associated with depression and boredom, which are not very stimulating states compared to socializing.  In my opinion, cognitive decline follows the ‘use it or lose it’ mantra.

    People who don’t drink at all are missing out on the benefits of having fun, laughing, and bonding with others, but they also aren’t getting the negative effects of alcohol either.  After all, it does destroy the integrity of your intestinal mucosa and inhibit ion channels in nerve cells, which leads you to the popular mental effects of drinking alcohol.

    People who binge drink, you know, those who in college are holding each others hair over the toilet or being propped up on their sides so as to not die in their own vomit, have the worst health effects.  Maybe they are drinking too much because they have other issues they are escaping, trying to fit in too hard, or just hate themselves and take it out on their bodies.

    Chocolate

    Most people know that it is dark chocolate that is supposed to be better than milk chocolate because it has a higher percentage of cocoa.  Well if that’s the case, then why don’t we just all save some money, leave the candy aisle, and just go to the cooking aisle and buy pure cocoa powder and start using it?

    Oh right, it doesn’t taste that good by itself without all the fat and sugar surrounding the cocoa that makes what we know chocolate.  Milk chocolate tastes way better.  Let’s not kid ourselves.

    Because I’m scientific and experiment sometimes, I have been purchasing cocoa powder from the cooking aisle ever since I heard about the benefits of chocolate.  I didn’t see the need to get all the extra saturated fat and empty sugar calories from having the candy form because, personally, I don’t need that stuff.  Maybe you do, but I don’t.

    Based on the article linked above on the observational benefits of chocolate, I might experience lower cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, memory decline, and relaxation of blood vessels.  I had been adding it to my porridge in the morning, which makes it change color and look like chocolate porridge.  It is an…acquired taste…one that I actually enjoy after doing it for a while.

    That said, I honestly don’t think it is doing much for my physiology.  Part of this reason is because I don’t derive the same sense of subjective relaxation and joy most people associate with chocolate, which can lead to the cardiovascular and memory benefits.

    Some women say that chocolate stimulates the same area in their brain as sex.  Well, for me, I am not experiencing any orgasm from my cocoa powder in my porridge.  Therefore, it probably isn’t having the same effect on my brain and blood vessels as people who subjectively experience pure, better-than-sex bliss from eating this food.

    This gets me to the subject of subjective experience from food.  There are people who will read a study or news release and make a behavior change based upon that study.  If chocolate is found to be good for you, they will start eating it because of the possible, yet mechanism unexplained, health benefits.  They will eat it like medicine.

    I have worked with clients like this and probably am this type of person.  These types like to eat chocolate daily because the news releases have said that it is good for you.  Maybe it is good for THEM.  I’m not denying that.  But if you really don’t enjoy eating it, it probably is not giving you the health benefits the article says because people experience food differently.

    The same thing goes for tea.

    Tea

    Compare the experience someone has who enjoys drinking tea vs drinking tea for the health benefits.

    Having tea involves taking time out from your day to make the tea, wait for it to cool (or scald your mouth, whichever you do), and slowly sip it while reciting whatever pleasant mantra you have in your mind that relaxes you.  I choose “serenity now.”  Tea is an experience that promotes the flow of chi.  I imagine hearing the rolling waves of the ocean and the pleasant sound of water flowing while pouring tea into my self-crafted colorful pottery mug with its appropriately matching saucer.  Miraculously, I do not have to pee with all these water sounds.  I am spiritually centered and feeling warm zen as I slowly consume my hot water flavored with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.

    Now let’s look at another situation.

    I boiled or microwaved water and poured it into my tea-stained reused white mug that has a tea bag that I purchased because it has health benefits.  I make sure the water is hot enough to disinfect any bacteria from the last time I used it.  Later, I forgot I poured the tea only come back to it two hours later in a rush as I’m leaving the house, so I quaff down the whole cup of flavored cool water.  It is kind of gross at this point, but I drink it anyway because it is good for me.

    Which situation do you think lowered your blood pressure?  Obviously quaffing the stuff down as fast as possible in a rush out the door probably won’t have the same health benefits as sipping soothing flavored water slowly.

    I can’t speak to the anticancer effects.  Maybe both situations benefit from just having the phytochemicals in tea.  Many health behaviors and foods are associated with a reduced risk of cancer, but there is not strong enough evidence to say that doing these things all the time will completely prevent cancer.  I would think that scalding your mouth with the tea may increase the risk of mouth cancer due to the turnover of epithelial cells in your mouth, but I can’t say for sure.

    Summary

    Sometimes the food itself has nothing to do with the reported health benefits associated with a food.  Perhaps some health benefits are chemically related to the foods themselves in some cases, but when association studies come out to promote certain foods, I like to examine things in contexts that people often don’t think about.

    Alcohol, tea, and chocolate are good examples of the point that certain foods can have subjective effects on the mind that can confer health benefits for some people.  Others who do not get the same subjective experience from these foods are not weird but socially ostracized, which can have negative health effects if care is not taken to rationalize the whole situation and find other ways to achieve the health benefits.

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