When I think of Valentines Day I think of one thing: chocolate! It’s probably not a coincidence that Valentines Day is in February, the same month the American Heart Association has declared “National Heart Month” because after all, chocolate is good for you, right?
Research has discovered that flavonols, a plant nutrient found in the cocoa (or cacao) bean, and therefore chocolate, may help contribute to lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot. (1). However, the more processed the cocoa bean is to sweeten chocolate, the less flavonols left in the final product. So yes, enjoying dark chocolate (e.g. 1 ounce of 70% chocolate or greater) a few times a week may be beneficial to your heart (2). Also include lots of other foods in your diet that are rich in flavanols like apples, peanuts, onions, green tea and red wine (in moderation).
Beyond flavonols, our bodies need many other nutrients to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and improve our heart health. According to US News and World Report (3), the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet (4) and Mediterranean diet (5) tied for first place in 2017 for being the healthiest eating plans. Why is this important? Both plans have evidence of lowering cardiovascular disease risk, blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. (6) They both emphasize eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, fish, and unsaturated fats (like virgin olive or canola oil). They both also include choosing low-fat dairy, lean poultry, minimize beef, and limiting salt intake between 1500 – 2300 mg per day (choose herbs and spices instead). Although 1 glass of red wine per day may be beneficial, alcohol and foods high in saturated fat are severely limited while refined sugar and flour are out.
So what does this look like? Here’s a list to help you shop for healthy, nutritious foods for your heart!
Whole Grains: 4-5 servings
Grains include whole wheat bread, whole grain cereal like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, barley and whole wheat pasta. Look for products labeled “100 percent whole grain” or “100 percent whole wheat.” One serving includes 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta.
Vegetables: 5-6 servings
Tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, greens like spinach and kale, summer squashes, and other non-starchy vegetables. One serving is 1 cup of raw or ½ cup of cooked veggies.
Fruits: 3-5 servings
Fresh fruits are low in fat (except coconuts) and include apple, berries, ½ banana, orange, pear, etc. 1/2 cup fresh, frozen or canned fruit (in natural juices with no sugar added) is 1 serving.
Dairy: 2 to 3 servings
Low fat (1%) or fat-free milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and other dairy products including 1 cup skim or 1% milk or low-fat yogurt, or 1½ ounces part-skim cheese. Flavored yogurts should contain less than 15 grams of sugar per serving.
Lean poultry and fish: 6 ounces per day (deck of cards equals 3 ounces)
Choose skinless chicken or turkey breast for protein. Eggs and soybean-based products, such as tofu and tempeh, are good meat alternatives, as is shrimp. Salmon, herring and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower your total cholesterol. Minimize beef and processed meats.
Nuts, seeds and legumes (beans): ¼ cup of nuts, 2 tablespoons of seeds, or ½ cup beans per day
Almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, sunflower seeds, kidney beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, edamame are full of fiber and healthy fats.
Fats and oils: 2 to 3 servings
Unsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado and avocado oil are best. One serving includes 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil, 1 tablespoon mayonnaise or 2 tablespoons salad dressing (oil based).
Put it all together and you’re on your way to a healthier you!
(1) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16774-heart-healthy-benefits-of-chocolate (August 17, 2017)
(2) https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sweet-dreams-eating-chocolate-prevents-heart-disease-201506168087 (June 17, 2015)
(4) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/MakeChangesThatMatter/Managing-Blood-Pressure-with-a-Heart-Healthy-Diet_UCM_301879_Article.jsp#.WlP5GTdG2Uk (October 2016)
5) https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801?pg=1 (November 3, 2017)
6) Today’s Dietitian, Vol. 19, No. 5, May 2017
Sue Saso is a health educator and nutritionist whose professional background includes biometric results consultations, facilitating mind-body wellness classes, and health
coaching. Sue works as a consultant for BaySport providing one-on-one counseling to help people achieve their fitness goals and improve their overall health and well-being. She has a Master in Public Health degree and is a NASM-certified personal trainer. Sue enjoys working out, live music, travel, reading and hanging out with her husband and two boys.