Vices or Virtues: Can dark chocolate, red wine, or coffee really help your brain?

One Morning, I was drinking my daily green veggie smoothie and reading a few headlines when a story boasted that eating dark chocolate could keep your brain sharp. I had come across dozens of articles stating that indulgent foods, like dark chocolate, red wine and coffee, could boost brain function and as a lover of all these things, I was conflicted after switching to a plant-based diet. This article brought all those feelings back to the surface.

I have always been skeptical about trendy type articles, but this hit home for me. Experiencing a health crisis of my own and having both parents suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, I was doing everything possible to ensure the safety of my brain’s health. So reading that the very things I love, but gave up, were actually considered healthy for your brain, confused me.

I immediately recalled my fondest childhood memories. My love for dark chocolate started as a child when I would have bonding moments with my mom over chocolate. Her and I knew there was something special about the way a delicious piece of rich chocolate could melt your cares away.

My mom and I would always snuggle up on a Friday evening and watch a movie in our black velvet lounge chair when Dad would go out bowling with his friends. Mom would put out dark chocolate candies and treats on a dish for us to share. I felt very close to my mom during those times because it was something that we both shared and enjoyed. Although this was our “little secret” she shared this with the Easter Bunny and Santa to ensure my Christmas stocking and Easter basket was always well stocked.

And back in the day, as a New Jersey child of the sixty’s, Helen Elliott was a well known confectionery store that had the most scrumptious dark chocolate marshmallows. Fortunately for me, this heavenly shop was located right outside my bus stop. As a special treat, my mom would give me twenty five cents a week to buy one for my commute home from school. I recall the soothing effects it had on my long walk home afterward, that made it all worth it.

As the years matured, my love for dark chocolate mixed well with red wine and coffee. In my opinion, the combination was pure bliss. I never viewed the rich confectionery and palatable drinks to be harmful for my brain. What I knew for the most part, was the importance of making sure I enjoyed my “love” in moderation. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t partake in the occasional over-indulgence – sure I did – but at a cost. Too much dark chocolate upset my stomach, too much red wine gave me a hang-over, and too much coffee would give me anxiety.

When I made the decision to switch to a plant-based diet and write my book “Organically Yours; Open Yourself to a Vibrant Healthy Life Through Clean Living,” I wasn’t concerned with missing the chocolate, wine, and coffee, the indulgent treats I loved. I was satisfied with my decision because I experienced something incredible. The sensation I had from a deep rich piece of chocolate, a robust cup of coffee or an intoxicating red glass of wine, I could also achieve with dark, leafy greens and fresh, ripe fruits. And not only did they soothe me but they nourished me at the same time. With each portion, I could feel the health effects it was having on my body.

The change was gradual. Symptoms began to go away one by one until one day I said, “Wow! I feel better!” I stuck to this plant-based diet because I wanted to get really healthy. I wanted to have that one glass of wine, piece of dark chocolate, and cup of coffee without worrying about the resulting health problems from doing so. Not to mention, following this diet makes it all worth it because I learned what it really meant to have discipline and understand the definition of moderation. Before I knew it, I had developed an insatiable appetite for healthy food.

I recently read AARP’s In The News article, stating that a new study from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) has found no evidence of dark chocolate, red wine or caffeine –rich drinks help your brain stay sharp. GCBH is an Independent collaborative sponsored by AARP and Age UK, a British charity.

The study reported that “If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation and only with meals.” The previous notion that there is beneficial effects from drinking wine, sobered me right up as the findings stated that “It is unclear if there is any beneficial level of consumption for brain health.” The report also found little support for the idea that drinking coffee was a long-term positive for your brain.

“Some research has been published about the protective benefits of the antioxidants in tea and coffee,” the report notes. “Short-term effects of caffeine consumption have been shown to increase alertness…but there is no consensus on whether the impact of tea and coffee is clearly beneficial or harmful for brain health.”

But what about the dark chocolate? Well, while there is some research that suggests high consumption of cocoa flavanols can cut memory loss, “the amount of chocolate you would need to eat to positively impact the brain could be canceled out by the number of calories and sugar you consume.”

So what did the study conclude? “A plant-based diet rich in green leafy vegetables and berries contribute to better brain health, while a diet high in red meat, saturated fats, sugar and salt can harm your brain health.”

With increasing evidence continually proving that vegetables, fruits, nuts and a healthy dose of omega-3 promotes wellness, I for one cannot entirely rule out my divine vices. Dark chocolate, wine and coffee at one time made up a good part of who I am. Although these studies coincide with my own personal research, and undoubtedly made me a believer in the benefits, there will be times when I engage. I think the key here is all about moderation no matter what popular studies challenge us.

After skimming through the article stating that dark chocolate could keep your brain sharp, I exited it out and finished my smoothie. While it would be nice if that headline were true, nothing can compare to a plant based diet that fills you and nourishes your body. I went to make myself a snack for later in the day, hummus with carrots and celery, with a smile on my face knowing that my body would thank me for what I was putting in it. As I placed it in the fridge for later, I glanced at the bottle of red wine sitting on the counter knowing that my special treat would be well deserved.