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Good news about ‘bad’ foods

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Some of our favourite food and drinks have received a bad press over the years. But the latest evidence suggests that they’re a lot healthier than we think. Here’s a look at five so-called ‘bad’ foods that may actually be good for our health.


Once considered an unhealthy treat, chocolate is now gaining a reputation as a superfood with heart-healthy properties. Numer-ous studies suggest that eating chocolate-just one small square a day-can lower blood pressure, cut cholesterol, and slash your risk of heart attack and stroke.

In one of the latest studies, German researchers followed more than 19,000 people for at least 10 years and found that those who ate the most chocolate-an average of 7.5 g/day-had lower blood pressure and a 39-per-cent lower risk of suffering from a heart attack or stroke compared with those who ate the least chocolate-an average of only 1.7 g/day.

The difference between the two groups amounts to just 5.8 g of chocolate: less than one small square of a 100-g bar. According to lead researcher Dr Brian Buijsse, if the group eating the least amount of chocolate increased their chocolate intake by 6 g/day, then 85 fewer heart attacks and strokes per 10,000 people could be expected to occur over a period of around 10 years (Eur Heart J, 2010; 31: 1616-23).

But not all chocolate is created equal: only the dark kind appears to be good for the heart. That’s because dark chocolate contains the most cocoa, and it’s the cocoa-brimming with heart-healthy antioxidant ‘flavonoids’-that provides the health benefits. Indeed, in a study comparing white and dark chocolate in patients with mild hypertension, only the dark type had beneficial effects, dramatically reducing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (Hypertension, 2005; 46: 398-405).

Other health effects linked to dark chocolate include increased insulin sensitivity in healthy people (suggesting a role for chocolate in diabetes prevention) and improved symptoms in people who have chronic fatigue syndrome (Am j Clin Nutr, 2005; 81: 611-4; Endocrine Abstracts, 2006; 12: 68).

Although dark chocolate may be high in sugar, the cocoa packs such a healthy punch that it counteracts any negative effects. As for fat content, much of it is present in the form of stearic triglycerides, which increase good HDL cholesterol and are readily cleared from the body via the gut (Crit Care Nurse, 2007; 27: 11-5). Also, the fat slows the rate of sugar release into the bloodstream, making dark chocolate a low glycaemic-index (GI) food.

These benefits should not be seen as an excuse to overindulge, however. Stick to just one small square of dark chocolate (with at least 70-per-cent cocoa solids) every day, and you can reap the rewards without piling on the pounds.


Eggs have long been frowned upon for their high cholesterol content, but the current evidence suggests no direct link between egg consumption and blood choles-terol levels (Food Chem, 2011; 129: 155-61). In fact, eating eggs might actually be good for the heart. A recent laboratory study identified several different peptides in boiled and fried eggs that act like the popular blood-pressure-lowering drugs, ACE inhibitors. These findings “may have implications for cardiovascular disease preven-tion, including hypertension”, the researchers said (J Agric Food Chem, 2009; 57: 471-7).

Eggs are also a good source of disease-fighting antioxidants, including the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, known for their protective effects against macular degeneration and cataract forma-tion (Food Funct, 2010; 1: 156-60). One study found that eating one egg a day for five weeks significantly raised blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin without increasing cholesterol levels (J Nutr, 2006; 136: 2519-24).

Other research shows that eggs may help you to lose weight. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that eating two eggs for breakfast for eight weeks, as part of a reduced-calorie diet, helped over-weight adults lose more weight and body fat than those eating a bagel breakfast of equivalent calories. What’s more, and yet again, cholesterol levels did not differ between the two groups (Int J Obes [Lond], 2008; 32: 1545-51).

Some people may not benefit from eating eggs, however. One study found a link between higher egg consumption and an increased risk of coronary artery disease among diabetics. It could be that eggs have a detrimental effect on glycaemic control, the researchers said (Med Sci Monit, 2007; 13: CR1-8).

Still, there seems to be no reason why healthy people can’t enjoy an egg a day.

Peanut butter

Although peanut butter is high in fat, including the saturated kind, studies suggest that including it in your diet may actually be good for your health.

A recent study by Harvard researchers found that frequent nut and peanut-butter consump-tion was linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) among women with type 2 diabetes. Compared with women who almost never ate nuts and peanut butter, those who ate at least five servings of these foods per week (one serving = one tablespoon of peanut butter or 28 g of nuts) had a 44-per-cent lower risk of CVD and heart attack.

Part of the reason for the slashed risk may be that, for every one serving per day increase in nut/peanut-butter consumption, there was a 0.17-mL decrease in bad LDL cholesterol.

Other possible mechanisms through which nuts/peanut butter may have cardioprotective effects include inhibiting inflammation, decreasing insulin resistance and improving the function of endo-thelium, which lines the inner walls of arteries (J Nutr, 2009; 139: 1333-8).

These findings support those of the Iowa Women’s Healthy Study, involving more than 40,000 postmenopausal women, which found that peanut-butter and nut consumption was associated with a reduced risk of death due to CVD and and coronary heart disease (Br J Nutr, 2006; 96 Suppl 2: S52-60). Other research suggests that eating peanut butter can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and gallstone disease (JAMA, 2002; 288: 2554-60; Am J Clin Nutr, 2004; 80: 76-81), and could help to curb appetite in normal-weight individuals (Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 2002; 26: 1129-37).

According to nutrition expert Dr Walter C. Willett, peanut butter has a good ratio of unsaturated to saturated fat, with two table-spoons containing 3.3 g of saturated fat and 12.3 g of unsaturated fat (which equates to around 80-per-cent unsaturated fat). It also contains fibre, vitamins and minerals (including 200 mg of potassium), as well as other nutrients.

Some brands, however, add sugar, salt and other additives to the mix, so look for products that are 100-per-cent made from peanuts.


Coffee has also had its fair share of bad press, but the latest studies suggest that it may have important health-promoting properties.

In a study of nearly 35,000 women, drinking more than one cup of coffee a day was associated
with a significantly lower risk of stroke. Women who reported drinking 1-2 cups/day, 3-4 cups/day and 5 or more cups/day had a reduced stroke risk of 22, 25 and 23 per cent, respectively, compared with those who reported drinking less than one cup of coffee a day, the researchers found (Stroke, 2011; 42: 908-12).

Other evidence indicates that coffee drinking might help protect against cancer. A Swedish study found a link between coffee consumption and a reduced risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women, while a US study reported an association between coffee drinking and a lowered risk of lethal prostate cancer (Breast Cancer Res, 2011; 13: R49; J Natl Cancer Inst, 2011; 103: 876-84).

There is even research suggesting that coffee might also help to guard against dementia/ Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce the risk of death due to heart disease and other causes-at least in women (J Alzheimers Dis, 2010; 20 Suppl 1: S167-74; J Nutr, 2010; 140: 1007-13).

The mechanism behind these health benefits is still unknown, but it’s thought that antioxidant polyphenols in coffee might play a key role by inhibiting inflammation (Nutr, 2010; 140: 1007-13).


You won’t often find pizza on healthy-food lists, but some research indicates that it could cut your risk of cancer.

A study carried out in Italy-involving 22,000 people-found that regular pizza-eaters had a significantly reduced risk of digestive-tract cancers. Eating one portion or more of pizza a week was associated with a 59-per-cent reduced risk of oesophageal cancer, and a 34-per-cent lower risk of oral and pharyngeal (throat) cancer. The risk of developing colon and rectal cancer also fell-by 26 and 7 per cent, respectively (Eur J Cancer Prev, 2004; 13: 447-52).

The healthy dose of tomatoes and olive oil provided by Italian pizza could be responsible for these findings, the researchers said. Indeed, both ingredients have been independently linked to a reduced risk of cancer. In one such study, Harvard researchers found that men who ate lots of tomatoes and tomato products (such as tomato sauce and pizza) reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 35 per cent (J Natl Cancer Inst, 1995; 87: 1767-76). In yet another study, higher olive-oil consumption was associated with lower odds of having any type of cancer (Lipids Health Dis, 2011; 10: 127).

But before you start dialling for a pizza takeaway, bear in mind that eating pizza outside of Italy may not be so healthy. Traditional Italian pizza is typically 20-per-cent tomato sauce, 20-per-cent mozzarella cheese, 4-per-cent olive oil and less than 50-per-cent crust. The UK and US varieties, on the other hand, generally contain more refined carbohydrates, and are often loaded with salt, preser-vatives and processed meat.

For a healthier option, try making your own pizza with whole-wheat pizza dough, plenty of tomato sauce, a dash of olive oil and just a sprinkling of cheese. You could also add some antioxidant-rich oregano for some functional flavour.

Joanna Evans


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