CALS Wellness Committee tip: Love your heart this Valentine’s Day

In our Wisconsin climate, February often brings thoughts of more dreary weather.  Valentine’s day celebrations are a rare ray of sunshine in the otherwise bleak month.  However, another, arguably more important, celebration-worthy event in February is the beginning of American Heart Month.  Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, is the number one killer of men and women in America. Throughout February, organizations such as the American Heart Association step up awareness, education, and funding for medical research to reduce and prevent cardiovascular disease.

One area of recent heart-related research is about the dangers of too much added sugar in our diets. This research shows us that increased added sugar consumed leads to increased risk of dying due to cardiovascular disease.  So if too much sugar is bad for our hearts, what do we do about Valentine’s Day? A holiday that’s dominated by chocolate and candy!?

What is an added sugar?  An added sugar is sugar or syrup that is added to a food during preparation or processing.  Added sugars could be the table sugar we add to our morning coffee, or the high fructose corn syrup in our can of soda.  It could also be the cane juice that was used to sweeten our fruit flavored yogurt.  Common foods that have added sugars include soda, fruit flavored drinks, sports drinks, cereals and breakfast bars, baked goods, jellies/jams and candy.

It is important to note that added sugars are different from naturally occurring sugars in foods.  Examples of naturally occurring sugar include the sugar that makes fruit sweet (called fructose), and the naturally occurring sugar in milk and dairy (called lactose).

To make matters more complicated, added sugars are called many different names, such as: sucrose, fructose, glucose, nectar, honey, cane juice, turbinado sugar, malt syrup, dextrose, corn syrup… and the list goes on.  One food product may list several types of added sugars on its ingredient label.

So how much added sugar is too much?  The new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugar.  So what does that mean?  Well, it varies by individual and calorie needs, but in general for a 2000 calorie diet, no more than 200 calories (or 12.5 teaspoons sugar) should come from added sugars.  Actually, the American Heart Association recommends even less, suggesting 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men from added sugars. This translates to about 6 teaspoons of added sugars for women and 9 teaspoons for men.

Below are a few tips to take to heart to help limit your consumption of added sugar this Valentine’s Day.

For your kids, school parties and social events consider the following treat ideas:

  • Valentine themed non-edible items (aka pencils, erasers, stickers, color sheets, etc.)
  • Small trinket gifts (mini puzzles/games, bracelets, art projects, etc.)
  • Homemade Valentines
  • Heart shaped fruit pieces (for example, a heart shaped melon on a wooden skewer… think cupid’s arrow)
  • Valentine (red and pink ribbons, oh my!) decorated packets of trail mix, boxes of raisins, cutie oranges.
  • Platters of fruits or veggies in heart shape

*See Pininterest for a ton of ideas in this category

What about if Valentine’s just doesn’t seem the same to you without chocolate?  Go with dark chocolate.  In general, it contains less sugar than milk chocolate or white chocolate.  The cocoa in dark chocolate has been linked with some heart health benefits too! The cocoa bean contains flavanols (an antioxidant similar to the ones that are in wine and berries) which research shows may help to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the heart and brain, and may prevent blood clots from forming.

However, these potential benefits only come with dark chocolate that is at least 70% percent cocoa (which is usually noted on the front of the packaging if >70%).  Cooking with unsweetened cocoa or cocoa nibs are great ways to incorporate chocolate, such as adding cocoa powder to a smoothie or to unsweetened yogurt.

Some options that aren’t quite that high in cocoa, but still worth mentioning:

  • Dove Dark Chocolate Hearts/ Dove Dark Chocolate promises
  • Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate Squares
  • Hershey’s Extra Dark Chocolate
  • Cocoa dusted almonds (or other nuts)
  • Dark chocolate covered fruit (think chocolate covered strawberries)

Enjoy this February and celebrate your heart in all its forms. Giving yourself and your sweetheart a “heart healthy” gift.

This article was written by Taiya Bach, MPH, RD, CD, CSP. Bach is an assistant faculty associate in the Department of Nutritional Sciences.