Valentine’s Day is almost here and if you or your sweetie are focusing on improving your health and wellness, you may not be interested in the traditional heart-shaped candies, chocolates, or dinner out at a restaurant followed by a movie. Many of the ways people celebrate can lead you off the path of health and onto a sugary and sedentary path.
In addition to Valentine’s Day, February is also American Heart Month. It is possible to combine heart health into your Valentine’s celebrations. At Seattle Sutton’s, we have never believed in diet rules or deprivation but instead focus on a balanced diet with portion control and healthier ingredients. This approach helps you find a maintainable lifestyle that allows you to fit in all of the things that you love, decrease the stress around food, and helps you enjoy your life without unnecessary restrictions. Because a healthy life should be full of all the things you love and that make you feel good!
It just so happens that February is also Chocolate Month and Cherry Month. These foods go perfectly with a heart-healthy Valentine’s Day with some healthy tips and tricks.
Chocolate for Heart Health
Chocolate is synonymous with Valentine’s Day, but much of that chocolate is overly processed and full of saturated fats and unhealthy chemicals. The cocoa bean itself is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids. These plant-based phytonutrients in chocolate may offer some heart-health benefits. Flavonoids act as powerful antioxidants, helping protect us from environmental toxins and repairing cell damage. It is important to note that Dutch chocolate does not offer these benefits. When making Dutch chocolate alkali is added, which removes these beneficial flavonoids.
When it comes to health, the darker the chocolate the better to keep these flavonoids intact. Aim for about 60-67 percent cocoa or higher. Research shows that flavonoids have other potential benefits for vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.
It is recommended to aim for 200 mg of flavanols per day to reap these benefits. You can achieve this level with about 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder, which is about 20 calories. To reach this amount with other chocolate items can really increase the calories. For example, you would need to consume 2 ounces of dark chocolate, which is about 300 calories, or an entire cup of chocolate syrup, which is 800 calories and contains many added sugars. It is best to opt for a combination of chocolate and other flavanol-rich foods such as onions, berries, citrus fruits, and tea to reach the recommended 200 mg daily.
Cocoa butter contains saturated fats, which are known to increase blood cholesterol levels and negatively influence heart health. Stearic acid is the main fatty acid in chocolate, making up about one-third of its fat content. Stearic acid is converted to oleic acid in the liver, which is a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Unlike other saturated fats, stearic acid is thought to have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels.
Most chocolate items are high in calories, added sugars, and fats and have minimal amounts of nutrients. Dark chocolate generally has less dairy fat and therefore less saturated fat. Chocolate that has a higher percentage of cocoa has higher antioxidant content, less saturated fats and sugars. Chocolate contains copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium too.
Some research has demonstrated that dark chocolate powders may also help combat inflammation in the body, which could improve overall heart health. The research shows that chocolate helps bifidobacteria, a health-promoting bacterium commonly found in yogurt to release anti-inflammatory compounds in the gut.
The fact is chocolate has many benefits to our health as long as it is enjoyed in moderation and paired with an overall healthy diet. Follow these tips when choosing chocolate:
- Choose quality over quantity
- Look for minimal ingredients and additives
- Avoid hydrogenated oils
- Select a higher percentage of cocoa
- Look for items that are the least processed
Chocolate does not have to be a forbidden food! When enjoyed in moderation and choosing better varieties, chocolate may lend some health benefits and make your life a little more delicious!
Heart Benefits of Cherries
Cherries are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals that provide great nutrition for the body and the heart. A one-cup serving of cherries contains 3 grams of fiber and almost 300 mg of potassium. When it comes to heart health, these two nutrients are very important.
Potassium helps with blood pressure regulation and may help to naturally lower high blood pressure. It is well known that consuming too little potassium and too much sodium can raise blood pressure. Potassium helps to lessen the effect of sodium, which can help to lower blood pressure and reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. The more potassium you eat, the more sodium you lose through your urine. It also helps to ease tension in your blood vessel walls, which helps to further lower blood pressure naturally. Another benefit of eating more potassium-rich foods is that you may crowd out other high-sodium foods from your diet.
The red, heart-shaped fruits are a good source of fiber, which helps keep your digestive system healthy, fuel beneficial gut bacteria, and improve heart health. There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble, and each plays a different role in overall health. Cherries contain both types of fiber. Insoluble fiber helps provide bulk to the digestive system to improve bowel function. Soluble fiber has a role in decreasing bad cholesterol and improving blood sugar. Both types of fiber help you feel full, which could lead to weight loss that has also been proven to help with overall heart health.
In some studies, drinking tart cherry juice led to lower systolic blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and fasting blood sugar. Like chocolate, cherries (both sweet and tart varieties) are rich in antioxidants. They are especially high in polyphenols, which are thought to help protect against many chronic conditions, including heart disease, by protecting against cellular damage and reducing inflammation. Another large study with over 80,000 people looking at polyphenols (particularly the polyphenols found in cherries) found a significantly lower risk of heart disease over 5 years.
Tips for Adding Cherries to Your Diet include:
- Choose cherries with bright green stems that are plump and firm
- Just like chocolate, opt for darker which will often have the best flavor
- Read labels carefully for dried cherries, many contain high amounts of added sugar
- Blend frozen cherries into smoothies
- Use fresh cherries on frozen yogurt rather than jarred cherries in syrup
- Add to stir-fries, parfaits, fruit salads, baked goods, and sauces
- Wash and enjoy as a fresh, sweet snack
- Prepare a homemade trail mix with unsalted nuts, dark chocolate chips, and low-sugar dried cherries
- For a fun mocktail, stir together sparkling water, a splash of tart cherry juice, and add a lemon slice
I came up with a fun treat you can enjoy celebrating all 4 holidays this month: Valentine’s Day, American Heart Month, Chocolate Month, and Cherry Month. Grab your sweetheart and whip up my Dark Chocolate Yogurt-Dipped Cherries.
About 35 Fresh Cherries
60% Dark Chocolate Bar (or higher percentage), works best if it is chilled ahead of time
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Wash hands and rinse cherries in a colander under cold water.
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. Grate chilled chocolate bar. If the bar is not chilled you may notice that the chocolate begins to melt while grating. Using darker chocolate works best for grating because it is more rigid. If you prefer not to grate your chocolate, you can chop it but the chocolate will have larger chunks, which may be harder to adhere to the yogurt.
4. In a small bowl, mix Greek yogurt and vanilla extract until well blended.
5. Dip cherries into the mixture one at a time and then dip into grated chocolate.
6. Place each cherry onto the baking sheet and freeze until hardened, about 30 minutes.
We love the flavor combo of chocolate and cherries! If you love this combo too, you will love our Vegan Tiramisu, Cherry-Glazed Meatloaf, Chocolate Flaxseed Muffins, Matcha Cherry Pancakes, and more!
Check out our menus today (it is another way to be good to your heart!)