Listen to Your Heart (Part 2)

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Valentine’s day is today. It’s one of those holidays that you either love or hate. Whether or not you have a special someone on this Hallmark holiday, you might view Valentine’s day (heck, the whole month of February), as a reminder to take care of your ticker (that is to say, your heart).

When it comes to food and heart health, you’ve heard the drill before: Eat less saturated and trans fat. Eat more fish. Use olive oil instead of butter. These are all important tips, and maybe you’re already doing them. But there’s even more that you can do (or not do) to boost your heart health. And you may not know about some of these strategies, so let’s take a look:

Jump-start the day with a cup of joe. It may seem hard to believe, but coffee (and tea) drinkers are less likely to die of heart disease than those who don’t touch the stuff. In fact, a study of more than 37,000 people over 13 years found that those who drank more than two cups but no more than four cups of coffee each day had a 20% lower risk of heart disease than those who only drank a little coffee or none at all. Plus, coffee drinkers were slightly less likely to die from heart disease than abstainers.

Women who drink coffee have a 20% lower stroke risk than women who drink very little or no coffee. Why? It could be the flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) in the coffee that have a protective effect. But a word to the wise: Drinking too much coffee may increase anxiety, irritability, and sleeplessness. Also, go easy on the add-ins, like cream, half-and-half, and sugar, as these ingredients definitely are not linked with heart-health.

Don’t overlook black tea. Speaking of caffeine, you might sip on a few cups of black tea during the day, especially if you have high blood pressure. Researchers in Australia found that men and women who drank three cups of black tea every day for six months had an average drop in systolic (top number) blood pressure of between two and three points, and a drop of about two points in their diastolic blood pressure.

These drops may not seem impressive, but seen in an entire population, they would equate with a 10% reduction in the prevalence of high blood pressure and a 7–10% drop in the risk of heart disease and stroke. Black tea is thought to improve the function of endothelial cells that line blood vessels; also, tea’s flavonoids can improve the tone of blood vessels and perhaps lower body weight and abdominal fat. Not bad.

Fry it up. OK, well, everything in moderation. Still, if you insist on frying fish, at least choose olive or sunflower oil. A study conducted in Spain looked at the cooking habits of 41,000 adults without heart disease. These folks fried food in olive and sunflower oil, yet there was no link between their intake of fried food and heart disease or death. However, it’s important to note that this study isn’t a license to dust off the deep-fat fryer just yet. In the US, different oils are often used for frying (including solid fats), and oils are often re-used, which isn’t healthy. Plus, there’s no getting around the fact that fried foods are dripping with calories (which is definitely not good for your heart).

Doom for diet soda? Pretty much no one would argue that diet soda isn’t exactly a healthy beverage. But the lack of calories and carbs makes it very attractive to a lot of people. A recent study, which looked at 2500 New Yorkers over nine years, found that daily diet soda drinkers were 61% more likely to have “vascular events,” such as heart attack or stroke, than those who didn’t imbibe.

Luckily, light diet soda drinkers (those who drank between one diet soda a month and six a week) were not at increased risk. It’s too soon to jump to firm conclusions, however, because researchers don’t yet know if there’s something harmful in diet soda contributing to cardiac problems, or if it may have something to do with behaviors of diet soda drinkers. In the meantime, it’s not a bad idea to put down the Diet Coke and reach for a glass of water or seltzer, instead.

A sweet treat. You can feel a little less guilty about eating your Valentine chocolate this year…with a few caveats. Chocolate is made from cocoa, a substance that is high in flavanols (which, by the way, are also found in red wine, tea, and fruit). Flavanols are antioxidants and they’ve been linked with lowering the risk of heart disease.

Dark chocolate, which is higher in flavanols than milk chocolate, may help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of blood clots, and reduce inflammation in blood vessels. Chocolate also contains stearic acid, a fatty acid that, while saturated, doesn’t seem to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

But the caveats are as follows: Studies have looked at dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (more commonly eaten in Europe than in the US). Milk chocolate may not offer the same benefits, and has added butterfat and sugar. Finally, beware the calories: One ounce of chocolate has 160 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 14 grams of carbohydrate. But if you can stop yourself at one square, go for it. Choose the best quality dark chocolate that you can afford (generally, the kind with 60% cocoa or higher).

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