By Jessica Scott
February is both National Heart Month and Valentine’s Day. Together, these heartfelt events pay homage to both the emotional and physical needs of your heart.
Whether it’s cake, candy or ice cream, a majority of American celebrations seem to revolve around sugary treats in one form or another, and Valentine’s Day is no exception.
According to the National Retail Federation, last year Americans spent $17.3 billion on Valentine’s Day and the most popular gift purchased was candy. Even on a typical day the average American eats too much sugar. According to the American Heart Association, daily added sugar intake for Americans is about 20 teaspoons – more than three times the recommended amount of added sugar. This is significantly higher on holidays.
A consistent overconsumption of sugar will put you at risk for developing diabetes and/or obesity, which in turn predisposes you to heart disease – the leading cause of death in the U.S. All three of these deadly diseases are largely preventable with positive lifestyle choices, e.g. reducing your intake of sugar.
So, how sweet is too sweet?
The World Health Organization suggests added sugar not exceed six teaspoons per day.
It is important to note that “added sugar” is exactly as it sounds – sugar that is added, meaning not naturally occurring in foods. Processed foods are the biggest source of added sugar, although foods can have both. For example, a strawberry has sugar in its natural state, but when it is covered in chocolate it becomes a product of both natural sugar and added sugar.
Many people are under the impression that natural sugar is healthier than added sugar, but that isn’t necessarily the case. At the end of the day, sugar is sugar, and too much of it is detrimental to your health.
Daily limits for added sugar are given in teaspoons, which implies sugar already mixed into a product is easily measured. Nutrition labels do not list added sugars as their own entity, and the information provided on a label is in metric grams, which is not the standard unit of measurement for Americans.
Believe it or not, things were once simple: food didn’t require counting or measuring, Valentine’s Day gifts were thoughtful handmade cards and eating did not threaten life, it sustained it. People didn’t need labels or limits, just one simple rule: if you want to live, you must eat. The rule hasn’t changed, but food most certainly has.
There is not one right way to eat, because what works for you may not work for someone else. If you think strict guidelines would benefit you, I suggest finding a professional to help you develop a plan specific to your needs.
Otherwise, here are a few general heart-healthy tips:
Eat real food. The more ingredients listed on a food, the more processed it is. If you can grow it or hunt for it, it’s real food.
Avoid foods in boxes. A colorful box covered in misleading claims of why it’s healthy is a major red flag. A good rule of thumb is, if it’s good for you, it won’t have to remind you.
If you feel guilty, bloated, tired, etc. after eating it, don’t eat it anymore.
Eat foods that don’t have daily limits.
On special occasions, make memories instead of dessert. Choose keepsake gifts for the heart, not the stomach. This might require a bit of creative effort, but follow your heart. Remember, a gift that requires digestion is pre-destined to be a waste.
Cupids beware: sugary sweet gifts may ultimately bring heartache to your Valentine. This year, think outside the chocolate box – put your healthy heart out there and show your love with a gesture that doesn’t need digesting.
Jessica Scott is a Blaine-based registered dietitian.