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Students/Faculty News Jessica Jernigan February 11, 2022

February is the time when we keep matters of the heart close to us. Between American Heart Month and Valentine's Day, it's a great opportunity to focus on adopting a healthier lifestyle to prevent cardiovascular disease—the number one leading cause of death in the U.S. 

Nutrition can play a huge role in building a resilient heart to battle against disease and can be done through small changes.

Substitute, don't restrict 

Tara Harman, MS, RDN, instructor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences, encourages a focus on whole, unprocessed ingredients for heart health by reducing sodium intake and excess saturated fats. Both of which can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels leading to risk factors for heart disease.  

Most Americans consume higher levels of sodium and saturated fats than suggested. The average adult diet should incorporate less than 10 percent of their calories from saturated fats and 2,300 mg of sodium per day or less. 

Sandwiches for lunch are a common lunch-box must-have, but deli meat can hold an excessive amount of sodium. Instead of a sandwich every day for lunch, Harman advises switching up your meal a few days a week for a more balanced diet. 

"A great way to combat this is to make an extra serving at dinner to pack for lunch the next day," Harman said. "My favorite lunches are often 'mini dinners.' It's an alternate way of framing what you would typically have for lunch. Instead of deli meat, maybe it's a leaner chicken breast with rice and vegetables on the side." 

Omega-3: another way to say "I love you

Outside of substituting or limiting certain ingredients, like sodium and saturated fats, there are  various ways to add nutritious elements to boost a healthy heart.  

Consuming omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish like salmon, may reduce inflammation throughout the body leading to a stronger heart.  

"For kids, especially, it's important to introduce them to these types of food early on to promote good heart health habits," Harman said. "Children's palettes may not be as advanced as an adult, but salmon can be mild enough for them to try."

With a little careful planning, a delicious Valentine's Day dinner for two can be built around good-for-you ingredients while dining out or in. 

Harman says that gravitating towards fatty fish is an excellent source of protein and can be elevated with colorful sides, such as vibrant greens or a salad with strawberries or pomegranate seeds. 

Incorporate a sweet treat

Choosing nutritious choices for heart-health not only reduces risk for heart disease but can improve overall quality of life.

"Bodies thrive off whole ingredients. Processed foods have an excessive amount of sugar, so if you are experiencing blood sugar spikes and crashes throughout the day, that can have a large impact on mood and mental health."

For a sweet, fun treat to make and share with your loved ones, consider fresh raspberries with chocolate chips inside, said Harman. 

"Chia seed pudding is another great dessert option for incorporating omega-3s," Harman said. "Try adding cocoa and fresh fruit. It can taste like chocolate pudding, but it's a more health-focused option."

Harman suggests naturally sweet options like heart-themed applesauce pouches for parents of children who may have Valentine's day classroom activities. But a Valentine's Day party does not have to be all about sweets, she said. 

"For a fun, healthier spin on the day that is not centered around food, try gifting colorful crayons or heart-shaped glasses." 

Focus on what's important 

"Holidays are often centered around food, but it's important to recognize the meaning of the day—spending time with people you love. By making conscious, healthy choices, we can support our own quality of life and the lives of others around us.” 

Chia Seed Dessert Recipes

  • Easy Chia Seed Pudding

    1-cup milk of choice

    ¾ cup chia seeds

    ½ tsp. vanilla extract

    1 Tbsp. cocoa powder

    1. In a small container (such as a mason jar) add milk and chia seeds.

    2. Then, add vanilla extract and cocoa powder. Stir well until combined.

    3. Transfer to the refrigerator and let sit until chia seeds absorb the milk and expand (about 8-hours).

    4. Before serving, stir again to incorporate any clumps of chia seeds.

    5. For added freshness, top with fresh fruit like raspberries or strawberry slices.
  • Chia Seed Bars

    1 cup oats

    ½ cup chia seeds

    1 cup peanut butter

    ¼ cup honey

    1 tsp. vanilla extract

    Optional: ½ cup dark chocolate chips

    1. Add peanut butter, honey, and vanilla to a bowl and mix well.

    2. Add oats and chia seeds to a food processor and process until a flour-like consistency.

    3. Pour oat and chia seed blend into peanut butter mixture. Fold ingredients to mix.

    4. Line the bottom of a baking dish with plastic wrap or parchment paper. Then, pour mixture into baking dish. Press mixture so it is flat and evenly distributed in the baking dish. For added sweetness, top with ½ cup dark chocolate chips.

    5. Place another piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper over the top of the mixture, then press down to ensure it’s touching the mixture.

    6. Refrigerate for 15-30 minutes. Then remove top parchment and cut into squares

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