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The beverage that has received the most attention when it comes to heart health is alcohol. The evidence is pretty solid that alcohol provides some benefits for the heart. However, those benefits are not strong enough to justify recommending that nondrinkers take up the bottle.
According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, adults who drink one or two alcoholic beverages a day have a lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who don’t.
If you do drink, keep in mind that although moderate drinking is probably good for your heart, there is strong evidence that more than three drinks a day can raise blood pressure. In addition, alcohol can interact with some medications and can lower blood sugar in people with diabetes, cautions Netty Levine, R.D., M.S., dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. If you have diabetes, check with your doctor or dietitian before adding alcohol to your meal plan.
If wine is good for your heart, shouldn’t grape juice be, too? Like all fruits and vegetables, grapes are loaded with nutritional goodies that can reduce your risk of heart disease. But “it is not well-established that grape juice provides the same benefits as wine,” says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee. All fruit and vegetable juices provide heart-healthy benefits, but it is easy to drink more juice than you realize, toting up lots of calories along the way. If you’re looking for the benefits of juices, it’s probably better to just eat the fruit, Lichtenstein says.
The data on coffee has been less consistent, with some studies showing a distinct benefit from moderate consumption, others suggesting it doesn’t make much difference either way, and a few indicating that coffee increases blood pressure and risk of heart attack. But an overview of the research is reassuring that moderate coffee consumption does not pose a problem for most people, says Noel Bairey-Merz, M.D., chair of the Women’s Ischemic Syndrome Evaluation, a study on women and coronary artery disease sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. In fact, the antioxidants in coffee are probably good for your heart, experts say. People sensitive to caffeine, however, may find that it raises blood pressure or causes palpitations. If you think caffeine may be causing your elevated blood pressure, Levine suggests simply switching to decaf for a few weeks to see if it helps.
Like coffee, tea has plenty of antioxidants. The health benefits of tea may have been overblown, however. Some observational studies have indicated that tea—green or black—might help reduce the risk of heart disease. However, in May 2006, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement saying that, based on a review of 150 scientific articles, it could not find credible evidence that drinking tea reduced the risk of heart disease. Bairey-Merz agrees. “It may be that the average tea drinker is a more health-conscious person than a nontea drinker,” she says, and that’s why some observational studies suggest a benefit.
Most beverages won’t have the blatant negative impact on heart health that high fat foods might have. However, drinks laden with empty calories could lead to weight gain. Lichtenstein emphasizes that staying at a healthy weight is far more important than what beverage you drink. If you add a beverage to your diet for its heart-health benefits, be sure it doesn’t add too many calories.