Making Life Better Happy Heart Month!

What do fish, nuts and dark chocolate have in common? If your answer is they taste good, you are partially correct. If you also noted they are heart-healthy foods then you win the prize!

Heart disease, also termed cardiovascular disease, is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. An overall healthy diet and lifestyle, however, go a long way in reducing your risk for developing this debilitating and deadly disease.

We know consuming a variety of whole grain foods, vegetables, fruit, lower-fat dairy products, skinless poultry, fish, nuts, beans, peas and non-tropical oils, while limiting saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar-sweetened beverages, results in a heart-healthy eating pattern.

Let us focus on the health benefits of two of these foods, fish and nuts, with the added bonus of dark chocolate as a heart-healthy food.

The American Heart Association recommends eating a variety of fish, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids, twice a week. Additionally, prepare the fish without added fat, so avoid deep-frying. Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential type of fat that cannot be made in our body; therefore, we must obtain it from a food source. Fish such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel, trout and tuna are high in these essential fatty acids. Shrimp, tilapia and catfish also contain omega-3 fatty acids but in lower amounts. Research indicates that omega-3s help reduce inflammation, manage blood pressure, lower triglycerides, increase the good HDL cholesterol, reduce risk of a heart attack, improve circulation and aid the function of statin medications. Beyond heart health, the reduction in inflammation they provide is also important in lowering the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Like fish, nuts contain mainly heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. The recommendation is to eat about four 1.5-ounce servings (a small handful or about a third of a cup) of unsalted, unoiled nuts per week.

The Food and Drug Administration goes further with an approved Qualified Health Claim for nuts and heart disease. It states, “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts (such as walnuts) as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Nuts are good sources of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals too. The most common nuts that fit this heart-healthy profile are walnuts, almonds, macadamia, hazelnuts and pecans. Peanuts, although technically a legume, fit the category as well. The biggest challenge with nuts is controlling the portion you consume and making sure they are not covered with chocolate, sugar or salt. A good way to add nuts to your diet and control serving size is to use them as an ingredient in foods. Try adding them to salads, as a topping to yogurt, a stir fry ingredient or added to oatmeal in the morning.

Finally, we come to chocolate! Research in recent years appears to indicate that consuming dark chocolate in moderation can help protect your cardiovascular system. Cocoa beans, from which chocolate is derived, are high in flavonoids that act as antioxidants in our bodies, helping our cells resist damage from normal body functions and environmental contaminants.

The taste comes from the beans, and through processing into the chocolate products we like, many of the flavonols are lost. Most chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep these healthful components in their products. For now, though, when choosing chocolate, it is best to select products between 50 to 90 percent cocoa — mainly dark, bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, but read the label.

Just like with nuts, the challenge is consuming in moderation. A moderate amount is approximately a one-ounce serving about one or two times a week. Be sure to watch out for the extra ingredients like caramel, marshmallow or cream-filled chocolates that will be higher in fat, sugar and calories, perhaps negating the benefit of the chocolate.

One final note on chocolate: there is a proper way to eat chocolate, especially if it is a high quality chocolate. Start by enjoying the smell of the chocolate. Snap the chocolate into two pieces and hear a crisp, clean pop. Take a small bite, then break the chocolate in your mouth. Let it sit over your tongue, press the chocolate piece to the roof of your mouth and let it melt. Think about the taste of the chocolate – sweet, salty, bitter. Finally, savor the flavors as you slowly consume the chocolate, thinking about all those antioxidants helping your body to good health.

Happy Heart Month!

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Laurie Welch is a nutrition and family issues educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension, 570-726-0022.

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