Here's the verdict on whether or not your favorite "vices" can improve your cardiovascular system.

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You've likely heard that certain guilty pleasures, including red wine and dark chocolate, are actually beneficial for your heart's health. For many, the thought of this is quite exciting—after all, it's not every day that our "vices" turn out to be heart boosters. Consider the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it's easy to understand why this is such good news. But is this theory science-backed?

glass of red wine and plate of dark chocolate
Credit: getty images / cnicbc

Preliminary research shows red wine might be good for your heart.

When consumed in moderation, red wine does have several encouraging heart health benefits, according to a study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research—especially when it comes to increasing HDL cholesterol levels (which is the good kind of cholesterol). The key word here, however, is moderation. This means no more than one glass of wine per day for women and two for men, notes the CDC; if you're consuming more wine than recommended, the health risks tend to outweigh any benefits. "If you don't drink, don't start just because you think it may be healthy—it is probably healthier not to drink and avoid the calories," adds George Fernaine, M.D., the Chief of Cardiology at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn. "If you do drink, don't have more than one glass per day if you're looking to enhance your heart health."

The case for chocolate is stronger.

Research points to better news on the chocolate front. One study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics linked consumption of dark chocolate to cardiovascular benefits. We have the sweet stuffs' high levels of flavonoids—antioxidants also found in fruits and vegetables—to thank for that. "The flavonoids work by decreasing low density lipoproteins (LDL), or bad cholesterol, and improving the function of your blood vessels," explains Richard E. Collins, M.D., based in Colorado. His advice? You guessed it—moderation. And if you're not a dark chocolate lover? No need to force it, Dr. Collins adds: "You will just add empty calories to your diet."

Obviously, there are much better choices out there.

Consuming wine and chocolate in moderation certainly won't harm your heart's health, and while they may offer some slight benefits, there are far better food and beverage choices you can make, say our experts. California-based cardiologist and lipidologist Robert Greenfield, M.D., a medical director at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center, recommends both the DASH and Mediterranean diets, which promote the ingestion of fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, and nuts (and plenty of water, too!). On the beverage front—aside from water—experts say that tea offers numerous medicinal benefits, mainly due to its antibacterial and antioxidant properties. "Green tea contains a variety of biologically active compounds such as polyphenols, methylxanthines, essential oils, proteins, vitamins, and amino acids," says Dr. Collins, noting that its physiological effects, (such as its ability to reduce cholesterol levels and lower inflammation in the body) are related to tea catechin.

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