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

Valentine’s Day might be one of the few rays of sunshine in the otherwise bleak month of February. It’s a holiday dominated by love, hearts, chocolate and candy – and who doesn’t enjoy that? But having a healthy heart is also an important reason to celebrate this month.

Heart disease 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, which includes diseases of the heart and blood vessels.

Recent heart-related research is revealing the danger of too much added sugar. Researchers have shown us that increasing sugar consumption leads to increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. So, if too much sugar is bad for our hearts, what can we do?

Let’s first discuss: Just 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.

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).

In 2020, new regulations required that nutrition fact labels start listing added sugars. This can help you determine the amount of sugar in a food that is naturally occurring versus those that are added. However, it’s still not always easy to decipher. Added sugars are called many different names, such as: sucrose, fructose, glucose, nectar, honey, cane juice, turbinado sugar, malt syrup, dextrose, or corn syrup, and the list goes on. One food product may list several types of added sugar on its ingredient label.

How much is too much? The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 7 to 10 percent of daily calories from added sugar. This varies by individual and calorie needs, but in general for a 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 200 calories (or 12.5 teaspoons of sugar) should come from added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends even less, suggesting 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men from added sugars. This translates to about six teaspoons of added sugar for women and nine teaspoons for men.

Consider these tips to curb the sugar, and keep your heart happy and healthy this Valentine’s Day:

  • Give Valentine-themed non-edible items (such as pencils, erasers, stickers, color sheets, etc.), flowers, cards, thank-you notes, movie tickets, gift certificates to a favorite shop, or an IOU to spend quality time together.
  • Share healthy Valentine-themed edible items (heart-shaped fruit pieces, platters of fruits or veggies in heart shape, valentine decorated packets of trail mix, cutie oranges, boxes of raisins, and so on).
  • Make homemade Valentines (whether made by child or adult, homemade gifts are often highly treasured by the recipient due to the thought and effort required in making them).

And if Valentine’s just doesn’t seem the same to you without chocolate…. go with the dark chocolate!  Typically, dark contains less sugar than milk 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 those in wine and berries) which research suggests may help to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the heart and brain, and prevent blood clots from forming.  However, these potential benefits come only with dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa. The percentage is usually noted on the front of the packaging if it is more than 70. Cooking with unsweetened cocoa or cocoa nibs is another way to incorporate dark chocolate, such as adding cocoa powder to a smoothie or to unsweetened yogurt.

Some options that aren’t quite that high in cocoa, but are 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.

Taiya Bach is a teaching faculty II and a registered dietitian nutritionist with the UW-Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a member of the CALS Wellness Committee.