January is when many of us set new goals, like eating healthier. It’s important to eat well year-round, but we all have our weaknesses – whether it’s a wedge of Gouda, a chocolate truffle or a glass of merlot. But if you indulge occasionally, don’t beat yourself up too much. Studies show that in moderation, certain “guilty pleasures” such as chocolate, cheese and wine may actually be beneficial.

3 cheers for cheese

Cheese lovers will be thrilled to hear new research from the European Journal of Nutrition found people who ate a small amount of cheese were less likely to have a stroke or cardiovascular disease than people who didn’t eat cheese at all. While the study shows an association, rather than causation, it does point to cheese’s potential benefits.

Cheese is a creamy and flavourful indulgence with important nutrients such as protein, probiotics and calcium. However, not all cheeses are created equal, says Katrina Malmqvist, a registered holistic nutritionist and health specialist at Sun Life Financial. Read the label when shopping for cheese and try to avoid cheese that has a high amount of “modified milk ingredients” (such as whey, skim milk powder or casein – see the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s detailed list), rather than actual milk.

“Cheeses (with modified milk ingredients) tend to be lower quality,” says Malmqvist. “When modified milk ingredients are used you may not be getting the full nutrient profile you get from a real (non-modified) cheese.” 

Processed cheese, such as cheese slices and cheese spreads tend to contain modified milk ingredients, but lower-priced versions of cheeses such as cheddar or mozzarella sometimes contain the altered ingredients as well, to help keep the cost of manufacturing down. To be sure of what you’re eating, read cheese labels carefully. And to keep your intake of cheese under control, try to eat a portion of cheese no longer than the length of your thumb, says Malmqvist.

Not everyone can enjoy even the most nutritious dairy-based cheese, due to allergies or intolerances, but if you can’t handle dairy, you may still be able to enjoy goat, buffalo or sheep cheese, says Malmqvist. Of course, consult your medical professional before modifying your diet.

Should you choose chocolate?

So, is chocolate good for you? The answer is delicious but complicated.

Chocolate contains a class of antioxidants called flavonoids that some research has found to have anti-inflammatory and other benefits. One 2010 study from McMaster University found those who ate chocolate were less likely to have a stroke. Of the 44,000 people who participated in the study, those who ate 1 serving of chocolate per week were 22% less likely to have a stroke. A related study from the American Academy of Neurology found those who ate 50gm of chocolate once a week were 46% less likely to die from a stroke than those who didn’t eat chocolate. That said, more research is needed to confirm the relationship between chocolate consumption and strokes.

Like cheese, the health benefits of chocolate differ by variety. It’s best to avoid sugary chocolates with modified ingredients. Milk chocolate often contains “filler ingredients,” says Malmqvist. Instead, opt for dark chocolate, which is richer in flavonoids than milk chocolate because it contains a higher percentage of pure cacao beans.

What about wine?

Like chocolate, wine contains flavonoids, a group of plant-based chemicals found in fruits and vegetables. This powerful antioxidant has proven benefits such as anticancer, antidiabetic and anti-inflammatory effects, according to Oregon State University’s Micronutrient Information Center. Wine is also known to boost your levels of serotonin – a natural brain chemical that increases feelings of pleasure and well-being. Of course, wine isn’t recommended if you’re pregnant, below the age of majority, suffering from certain medical conditions that preclude alcohol, or if it’s forbidden by your religion. But if you can indulge, do so only in moderation, and with food. According to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, moderation means no more than 1 or 2 142mL (5oz)-glasses per day for women, or 2 or 3 glasses for men.

4 tips to prevent overindulging

When it comes to treats, putting on the brakes can be a challenge, especially when that last bite of brie, sip of sauvignon or tidbit of truffle is calling your name. These tips can help you enjoy treats in moderation this year:

  1. Don’t have dessert first. If you’re craving something sweet, first have something high in protein (like cheese or nuts) and pair it with something high in fibre like spinach or broccoli. Eating a combination of these types of foods will make you feel full so you’ll be less likely to load up on sugary desserts.
  2. Put your treat on a plate. You’re likely to eat more chocolate straight from the box, so put a small piece on a plate or napkin, and put away the box.
  3. Stay hydrated. It’s just as important to stay hydrated in the winter as in the heat of summer, and staying hydrated can help you eat in moderation. “When you’re dehydrated, your thirst/hunger signals can get confused,” says Malmqvist.
  4. Slow down and eat mindfully. This will help you to savour the flavour of your food and help you to eat in moderation, says Malmqvist. “Try to be mindful. Eat slowly. Chew your food, and stop eating while you’re not quite full.”

It’s important to have a balanced and healthy diet, but it is okay to indulge every once in a while, especially when your guilty pleasure turns out to have benefits.