Keeping a Healthy Heart on Valentine’s Day

February 5, 2014 Edited by  
Filed under Consumer awareness, Dietary Patterns

With Valentine’s Day approaching, stores are stocked with flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped notions. This year, we suggest that you let this heart-centric holiday be focused upon the health of your own heart and that of your significant other. This is important since the American Heart Association reports that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death for Americans. So the question is: how can you enjoy the sweets and treats associated with Valentine’s Day and still protect your cardiovascular health? One pleasurable way is to choose dark chocolate and red wine, which contain dietary constituents that may reduce risk of CVD.

Who would have thought that a sweet treat or a glass of wine shared with a loved one could actually reduce risk factors for heart disease? Short-term studies demonstrate that the cocoa within dark chocolate has antioxidant effects (Dark Chocolate). Flavonoids, the antioxidant phytochemicals found in cocoa, have generated much interest recently. These substances may protect against CVD by reducing the oxidative damage to cardiac myocytes (heart muscle cells) that underlies some aspects of the disease. It turns out that the darker the chocolate, the better (a cocoa content of ≥65% is recommended). Three ounces (or 85 grams) per day was shown to be effective. Conversely, chocolate products with added fat and refined sugars (e.g. milk chocolate) should be avoided. These powerful antioxidants may also reduce the risk of diabetes and slow the growth of certain cancer cells. This is all very good news for the celebrants of Valentine’s Day!

While recognition of the protective aspects of dark chocolate is newer, the potential health benefits of red wine consumption have been appreciated for decades. The inhabitants of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea were highlighted in a past blog because of their low rates of heart disease and their long life spans. A regular part of their dietary habits includes the consumption of moderate amounts of red wine with meals. Research since the revolutionary Seven Countries Study (7 Countries Study) has shown that red wine contains not only flavonoids (like dark chocolate) and but also resveratrol (Red Wine), a phytochemical with powerful antioxidant properties. Resveratrol may reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol (which contributes to the development of atherosclerosis), increase healthy HDL cholesterol levels, and prevent blood clotting. Interestingly, consuming grapes or grape juice does not provide the same health benefits, as the fermentation process releases these powerful antioxidants in wine. It is also important to remember that this positive aspect of wine consumption only applies to one (for women) or two (for men) 5 oz. glasses/day, as higher intakes can lead to adverse health outcomes.

The best heart-healthy recommendation for this upcoming Valentine’s Day is thus to focus on these special treats. Consuming these antioxidant-rich products as a part of an overall healthy dietary pattern in combination with regular exercise and other stress-relieving activities will lead to many more Valentine’s Day celebrations in the future. So, it is going to be candy hearts, gummy lips and sweet tarts this year, or dark chocolate and red wine? The decision is yours, but be aware that choices we make today could allow us to avoid “heartache’ in the future. (Written with the creative assistance of Gabrielle Lobban, a University of Florida undergraduate student)

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