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Vindicated: 5 Foods Science Has Rescued From the 'Junk' Label


Recent studies are putting some of our favorite foods back on the menu.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL For years, we've been told that most of our favorite dietary indulgences -- butter, booze, and our daily Starbucks (SBUX), to name a few -- are linked with such harmful side effects as obesity, heart disease, and even cancer. Doctors have warned us to steer clear, limit our intake, even avoid unconditionally. Recent studies, however, are forcing doctors to eat their words. Formerly regarded as health hazards, products such as salt, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, and saturated fats might not be so bad for us after all.

Most nutritionists will tell you that high salt consumption puts you on the fast track to hypertension, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Federal agencies such as the USDA and the CDC have been pushing Americans to cut down on salt for years. Public concern over sodium levels in packaged foods has even led corporations such as Heinz (HNZ), Kraft (KFT), and Tyson Foods (TSN) to reduce their products' salt content. Recent studies, however, show that lowering your salt intake can be more dangerous to one's health than overconsumption of the mineral. In fact, these studies suggest that if we actually lower our salt intake to the levels suggested by the USDA, we're more likely to die prematurely. (See Salt Fights Back: Has the Industry Been Exonerated?)

Chocolate has been blamed for many a malady -- cavities, acne, weight gain, you name it. But while it is often viewed as junk food, chocolate is chock full of antioxidants and flavonoids, and a recent study indicates that frequent chocolate consumption can actually help you lose weight. In the study, regular consumption of chocolate was linked to a lower BMI. This held true even when other factors -- such as regularity of exercise -- were taken into account. It's important to remember, however, that not all chocolate is created equal. In order to get the most benefits out of your sweet tooth, stick to dark chocolates -- the higher cacao percentage, the better -- and avoid sugary additives (e.g. caramel). An ounce of plain dark chocolate is one thing, a king-size Reese's (HSY) is quite another. While the latter packs a killer 400 calories, 24 grams of fat, 40 grams of sugar, and few nutritional benefits, the former is (on average) a more reasonable 150 calories, 9.2 grams of fat, and 13.5 grams of sugar. Still, chocolate's calorie count is not low, meaning it should only be consumed in moderation (Read: No more than an ounce a day). Sigh.
A report published this year by the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that coffee is more than a means to make it through Monday mornings. While past studies have indicated that coffee might cause cancer, according to this study, coffee drinkers have less heart disease, fewer strokes, and may actually live longer than their abstaining counterparts. What makes this study so much more credible than its predecessors? It happens to be the largest study to date examining the relationship between coffee and health -- surveying more than 400,000 respondents over a 14-year period. Scientists attribute the reported health benefits to the over 1,000 unique compounds and antioxidants found in your average cup of Joe. Too much caffeine, however, might reverse the benefits, so if you're drinking more than four cups a day (men and women) try switching to decaf. The benefits are the same. With companies such as Kroger (KR) and Safeway (SWY) adopting the single-serve coffee products made popular by Green Mountain (GMCR), getting your daily coffee fix has become even easier. (See also, If You Drink Coffee, You May Live Longer.)
Alcohol increases our risk of liver disease, cancer, and various forms of social embarrassment. Major liquor companies such as Anheuser-Busch (BUD) and Diageo (DEO) will be happy to hear it might also increase our lifespan. Repeated studies have shown that those who consume no alcohol tend to die earlier than those who consume alcohol at moderate levels. Even heavy drinkers have been shown to live longer than their teetotaling peers. And while wine has more health benefits than other drinks due to its wealth of antioxidants, beer and hard liquor will still do the trick -- it's the alcohol itself that provides much of the benefits. According to the experts, your best bet is one drink a day for women, two for men. More than that, and your cancer risks start to outweigh the potential benefits.
Saturated Fats
Although saturated fats have gotten a bad rap -- blamed for causing heart disease, clogged arteries, and America's spiraling obesity epidemic-- societies that consume saturated fats in high quantities are shown to have low levels of LDL cholesterol and very little heart disease. The Masai people of Kenya, for example, live on red meat, whole milk, and cow's blood -- a diet that, all told, is nearly 30% saturated fat -- and have virtually no heart disease. While doctors still recommend you choose unsaturated fat more often than its saturated counterpart, most agree that the occasional steak won't do you any harm. Just be careful how you get your sat fat fix. Instead of choosing the new high-calorie, high-sugar Burger King (BKW) bacon sundae, opt for less processed sources such as red meats, nuts, and chocolate.

In reading this list, it is important to remember that nutrition is a science, and is thus ever-changing. For example, many have heard the "good cholesterol, bad cholesterol" spiel. While LDL cholesterol ("the bad") blocks your arteries, HDL cholesterol ("the good") was believed to lower levels of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream, transporting it to the liver where it is more easily broken down. A new study, however, might refute these benefits, showing that increased HDL cholesterol levels have no impact on risk of heart attack -- a risk it was purported to reduce. So while we all want to believe we can continue sipping our daily Starbucks guilt-free, it may be best to take this data with, ironically, a grain of salt.

See More: 'Health' Food That's Actually Junk: The 7 Worst Offenders
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