Do you know if your sweetheart’s gifts of wine and chocolate are good for your heart?

In fact, these traditional indulgences may bring sweet rewards for health, within moderation.

Ginnie Barringer, a Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute registered dietitian and chef, offers the following tips to enjoy the heart-healthy benefits of these treats during National Heart Health Month (and beyond).

Benefits of chocolate …

The good news is “chocolate actually contains phytochemicals called flavonoids that reduce blood pressure and decrease insulin resistance,” Barringer said.

The details:

  • People who consumed the most chocolate – between a half ounce and 3.5 ounces daily – in a large study were found to have an 11 percent lower risk of heart disease and to be 25 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular problems and 25 percent less likely to have a stroke than those who ate the smallest amount of chocolate. (The study didn’t say eating chocolate was the cause of those outcomes – just that it was associated with them.)
  • Drinking two cups of cocoa daily for a month was associated with significant improvement in cognitive function and blood flow in the brain among older adults with high blood pressure and/or diabetes, another study found.
  • “The kind of chocolate people consume matters,” Barringer said. “Milk chocolate contains, on average, 75 milligrams of flavonoids per 100 grams – which is more than found in red wine or tea – but less than in dark chocolate, which has 170 milligrams per 100 grams.”
  • The bottom line: Choose the darkest chocolate that you enjoy.

… and wine

Wine, too, can have health benefits.

“Moderate alcohol consumption – that’s about one 5-ounce glass of wine a day for women and up to two for men – can provide a boost to health,” Barringer noted.

Those include:

  • A 25 to 40 percent reduction in risk of heart disease-related death, including heart attack, ischemic stroke, peripheral vascular disease and sudden cardiac death.
  • A lower risk of gallstones and type 2 diabetes.
  • Moderate wine and beer drinkers have higher bone mineral density than nondrinkers.
  • Wine drinkers have a lower likelihood for developing osteoarthritis of the knee; but beer can actually increase the risk.

Don’t overdo it

However, make sure you don’t lose out on the benefits of your favorite indulgences by overconsumption.

Chocolate can be a source of extra calories that can contribute to weight gain. Add a 3.5 ounce, 600-calorie dark chocolate bar each day, and in one month you will have gained over five pounds. And it takes nearly three hours of walking to burn off that chocolate bar!

“If you’re going to consume chocolate regularly, don’t add it to your daily calories but replace it for other snack foods to avoid weight gain,” Barringer said.

Chocolate is a source of saturated fat which can raise the bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), and milk chocolate in particular has more sugar and butterfat than dark chocolate.

When it comes to drinking, the line between beneficial consumption of alcohol and harmful can be very thin. Heavy alcohol use – 30 grams to 90 grams a day, which at the low end is the equivalent of two standard glasses of wine – is a major cause of preventable death and is implicated in half of all fatal traffic accidents in the U.S.

Alcohol can cause damage to the liver and heart, addiction and harm to an unborn child. Consumption that’s above “moderate” can contribute to depression and increase the risk of osteoporosis and breast, colon and other cancers. In addition, the benefit for preventing type 2 diabetes and gallstones is cancelled out if an individual consumes more than four drinks per day.

Remember, you can’t save up through the week to overindulge on the weekend without increasing the risks.

So be sweet to yourself – enjoy in moderation!