February may bring the most romantic day of the year, but it’s also American Heart Month. And if you hope to spend eternity — or at least the next 50 or so years — with your beloved, you’d be wise to take care of your ticker.
One of easiest and most sustainable ways to improve heart health is to change the way you eat and fortunately heart-healthy eating doesn’t require extreme calorie restriction or completely eliminating all your favorite treats. It comes down to eating more of the foods you already know are good for you — vegetables, fruit, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains — and limiting added sugar and fat. It’s a flexible and do-able approach, and even allows for special occasion meals like Valentine’s Day dinner with the one you love.
To create a heart-healthy Valentine’s Day menu and get advice on heart-healthy eating, Yahoo Food spoke to Marla Heller. In addition to being a registered dietician, Heller is the author of the DASH diet book series, including The DASH Diet Action Plan and The Everyday DASH Diet Cookbook. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and was originally developed to lower blood pressure as part of research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
Heller explains that high blood pressure can eventually put you at risk for developing heart failure, which makes lowering it essential. Plus, as the DASH diet was modified and more research was done, additional benefits were discovered. The DASH diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as diabetes and certain types of cancer. It was recently named the best diet overall for the sixth year in a row by U.S. News & World Report and it can lead to weight loss, which is another boon to the heart.
The DASH diet encourages eating lots of fruit, vegetables, low-fat and nonfat dairy, nuts, beans, and seeds. Whole grains, lean meat, poultry, and fish are also part of the plan, along with healthy fats like olive oil. Added sugars and saturated fat should be limited, but they’re not banned completely.
“You don’t want to get totally obsessive,” says Heller. “You can have some of those fun foods, as long as they’re really worth it.” Rather than trying to feed a craving with something ordinary like a granola bar, opt for a special treat, recommends Heller. “When you have foods that really taste great, you’re satisfied with less.”
With help from Heller, we created a health-healthy Valentine’s Day menu that follows the DASH diet approach. It includes lean protein, good-for-you olive oil, nuts, seeds, and tons of veggies, but it’s also sophisticated and special enough for a romantic candlelight dinner. Our Heller-approved menu features Crudités with Lemon-Parsley Tahini Dip, Herby Lamb Chops with Salad, Spice-Crusted Carrots with Harissa and Yogurt, and Chocolate Chunks with Cherries and Pistachios.
Crudités with Lemon-Parsley Tahini Dip (Photograph: Signe Birck)
Before diving into the heart-healthy specifics, Heller was quick to comment on the menu’s aesthetics. “The more color you have on your plate, the more healthy it’s likely to be and for Valentine’s Day, having something that looks beautiful adds to the atmosphere.”
The most obvious heart-healthy aspect of the menu is that it is so vegetable-heavy, starting with the crudités. The recipe encourages using a variety of different veggies, such as watermelon radishes and Romanesco broccoli. These veggies probably aren’t part of your ordinary routine, notes Heller, which helps make this meal more interesting and appealing.
In terms of heart-health, vegetables provide fiber that absorbs bad fats and cholesterol, explains Heller. She adds that vegetables are also a source of antioxidants, which are considered beneficial for heart health — they can help reduce oxidation of cholesterol, an early stage of artery blockage.
Herby Lamb Chops with Salad (Photograph: Susan Bell)
The main course, herby lamb chops with salad (above) and spice-crusted carrots with harissa and yogurt (below), features another round of colorful, heart-healthy vegetables. The spinach, carrots, and avocado, as well as the yogurt, deliver potassium, calcium, and magnesium, key minerals that Heller says are believed to help lower blood pressure. Potassium in particular seems to help people get rid of excess sodium. It’s always good to cut back on sodium, notes Heller, but potassium can act as a “protective” for those times when you do eat a meal that’s higher in salt.
The lamb chops are a source of lean protein, but what’s even better is that they’re cooked in heart-healthy olive oil. Heller explains that olive oil helps reduce inflammation, one of the first stages of developing heart disease. It also contains monounsaturated fats, which are associated with raising good cholesterol.
Dessert delivers another hit of monounsaturated fats, thanks to the pistachios sprinkled throughout the bittersweet chocolate chunks. There’s whole milk and added sugar in the recipe, but Heller repeats her earlier advice and says it’s fine to indulge every once in a while, as long as it’s worth it. “Chocolate chunks with cherries and pistachios is going to be a fabulous dessert, so when you’re going to do it, make it great.”
If you want to complement your meal with an adult beverage, Heller encourages you to do so. In fact, she says that moderate drinkers have been found to be less likely to have heart attacks and tend to live longer than people who don’t drink at all. According to Heller, a moderate amount of alcohol is the equivalent of one 5-ounce glass of wine per day for women and two 5-ounce glasses for men. Wine, she adds, is a particularly smart choice, as it has antioxidants. Another benefit of having a drink with dinner is that it tends to relax you, “a good thing in terms of reducing your risk of heart disease.”
Whatever you decide to eat or drink this Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to keep it heart-healthy. Focus on those good-for-you ingredients and aim for quality over quantity when it comes to indulgences. It’s as simple as that, says Heller. “You can have a delicious, beautiful meal and still be kind to your heart.”