Red Wine, Chocolate, and Coffee: When Is A Good Thing NOT A Good Thing? (Part Two)

Dark Chocolate = Health Food, Right?

Continuing to look at health through the lens of balance and non-dualistic thinking, supplements aren’t the only place that we see unwanted effects from things that science has said are ‘good for you’.  Red wine, dark chocolate, and coffee are favorites for many of us, and a number of studies have shown them to have some good effects for your health.  Are they always good for you?  What does Chinese Medicine say about these three decadences-turned-health foods?   Red wine, dark chocolate, and coffee all have medicinal effects, it’s true, but does that mean that having them everyday is always good for your health?

  • Red wine is perhaps the most straightforward example of a food that might help some people, but also may cause other problems.  Studies have shown that red wine may protect against prostate cancer, lower lung cancer risk in men, boost HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, and even have anti-aging effects.  Sounds good right?  Pass me a glass!  (On the other hand, we have to mention that alcohol consumption of any kind is strongly linked to breast cancer development.)In Chinese Medicine, wine increases circulation and opens the vessels to relieve pain. Or at least, a little bit does. A lot of wine, however adds dampness and heat to the body, and can contribute to a range of problems, including headaches, insomnia, and menstrual irregularities.  I’ve had patients who drank wine regularly and were shocked when I suggested that they cut it out for a while to see what changed with their conditions. Like many of us, they had heard about all the studies on the beneficial effects of red wine and reservatrol, but those studies don’t say that red wine is good for everyone, just a certain percentage of people with certain conditions.  (And yes, it’s probably better than beer or whiskey.)  When it comes to wine, how much is a lot? Probably less than you think, but it depends on your body’s capacity to digest and detoxify.
  • Dark chocolate, especially, gets a lot of press for its health benefits.  Indeed, the flavanols in chocolate can have an effect on chronic inflammation, blood vessel health, and circulating lipid levels.  Chocolate consumption is linked to decreased risk of heart disease.  The cacao seeds are a rich source of antioxidants and contain more polyphenols and flavanols than fruit juice.   Mmm, I’ll take some of that!  But wait, how is your sleep? The bitterness of chocolate may help some people digest their food better, but if you tend to have sleeping troubles, eating a lot of chocolate, especially bitter dark chocolate might be contributing to your insomnia.
  • Coffee is our final stop on the common sense train to health.  Similar to red wine and chocolate, studies show certain beneficial effects of drinking coffee. Just this week, coffee has been all over the news because a large NIH study on older adults found that seniors who drink moderate amounts of coffee had a lower risk of death overall.   Coffee has a lot of antioxidants, it contributes to your daily fiber intake, and it has shown to keep fatty liver disease from progressing to advanced stages.
    Similar to chocolate, in TCM terms, the bitter, spicy properties of coffee can be beneficial for people with excess dampness, a common condition in North America.   It also moves the blood, something that gets harder for older adults.   The problem with coffee is that it also adds heat to the body, and while it can drain dampness, it also drains the beneficial yin fluids in your body at the same time.  That heat+draining combo can really have some major effects, especially on the blood.  For many, a shot of espresso after a heavy meal can be just what the doctor ordered, but drinking coffee everyday makes many people’s sleep worse, their muscles tighter, and for women, their menstrual cramps more intense.  As for the get-through-your-day aspect of drinking coffee, many people actually report feeling more tired a few hours after drinking coffee.

With all three of these substances, if you are having symptoms related to the blood in Chinese medicine, such as insomnia, infertility, or menstrual problems, eating a lot of these foods is not a good idea for now.  With coffee and chocolate, if your tongue is either very pale or very red, and it has very little or no coat, they may not be great for you to have regularly at this time.  Does this mean all of these foods we love to love are ‘bad’?  Absolutely not.  Does it mean you shouldn’t ever touch them?  You know we’d never say that.  TCM theory is about balance, and even balance has to be balanced.  So too, with our view on scientific studies that make generalized findings and broad statements.  From a Chinese medicine perspective, whether or not something is good for YOU, your body, your balance or imbalance, may change over time.

We’re talking a lot about looking at your tongue.  If you’re curious to understand more about tongue diagnosis, you can read our post on that very topic!

[Photo Credit: Ira Gelb]

4 thoughts on “Red Wine, Chocolate, and Coffee: When Is A Good Thing NOT A Good Thing? (Part Two)

  1. Nice article. I was looking for info on the TCM outlook on coffee and chocolate. I have used chocolate a lot due to the good press and the fact that I love it! ;) I have also had my fair share of coffee living in Seattle. What I have found is that both of these can strip the body of nourishment (at least in my case such as b-vitamins and minerals). So I agree with the draining yin aspect. Dark chocolate seems to lift the mood more whereas milk chocolate feels more soothing. But I think dark chocolate and coffee no dairy over the long term can strip too much nutrition.

  2. Interesting article. I find it very confusing with conflicting messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat. I have been having acupuncture to help with fertility issues. My acupuncturist has advised I stop coffee and sugar, which can be quite tough and take herbal teas instead, so I’ve found a lovely cinnamon tea. She also recommended a low GL diet. However, today I visited a traditional herbalist who diagnosed me as having excess heat and dampness and advised me to avoid certain foods such as cinnamon and other warming spices. Mind you after making and drinking the herbs I’ve been given, I’m not particularly hungry! :-D

    • It can be very confusing Nicki – you’re not alone!

      I find that people often get confused between hot temperature and hot properties. When we’re talking about heat in foods, we’re usually talking about the property of the food, not the temperature. Hot property foods are those like coffee, chai tea, and curry. So an iced coffee is still heating, and a hot green tea is slightly cooling.

      Cinnamon is so tasty, but it has a very heating property, so if you already have heat signs, it may not be the best for you. Green tea would probably be more appropriate for someone with heat signs.

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