For this article, I’d like to reflect on an experience that I had over winter break.

It was the Monday before Christmas, and I was at Wal-Mart to pick up some last-minute stocking stuffers. I had my mind set on a box of Hershey’s Pot of Gold, a box of Queen Anne Chocolate-Covered Cherries and a few chocolate Santas or snowmen— classic Christmas candy selections.

Determined to escape the zoo of last-minute shoppers and make this the fastest Wal-Mart run ever, I immediately made a beeline to the candy aisle. Upon reaching the aisle, I stopped in my tracks. There in front of me was an entire two-sided aisle lined with gummy cinnamon hearts, Red Hots, Russel Stover heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, little boxes of Brach’s Conversation Hearts and bright pink sugar-coated Peeps. The chocolate-mallow Santa Clauses, the peppermint bark, the Almond Roca, the peanut brittle, the chocolate-covered cherries, the red and green candy canes filled with M&Ms and the regular ol’ candy canes were GONE. It was ALL GONE.
I think to myself, “This is CUUUHRAZY.” It’s not even Christmas yet; we have two days to go! This just blew my mind. Here we have not even enjoyed one holiday and are off rushing to get into the goodies and treats of the next in an effort to induce ourselves in what? Another sugar coma?

This really got me thinking how many celebrations we partake in — and gifts we give around the holidays — that revolve around unhealthy and indulgent food. Sure, while a decadent meal or a slice of strawberry cheesecake can be a fun part of Valentine’s Day, the holiday is really about showing love and appreciation to others and yourself.

In fact, most people, whether they have a “special someone” or not, treat Valentine’s Day as an excuse to pig out on candy and O.D. on sugar. It’s like a second Halloween. This year, instead of focusing your Valentine’s Day celebrations around energy-busting, calorie-laden treats and commercialized activities, try celebrating in a different way that will not only still impress your loved ones, but help strengthen your relationships and keep your heart healthy too!

Below I debunk the three classic and most popular Valentine’s Day date nights with fun, active and heart-healthy alternatives that will be sure to make for a lovely night.
Instead of going out to dinner for a rich and indulgent meal …

Cook a meal for your loved ones at home. Try baking or broiling salmon fillets prepared with a little olive oil, lemon and black pepper. Serve them on a bed of quinoa with sautéed vegetables. Salmon, in addition to being high in protein and low in saturated fat, is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids which have been found to enhance heart health by decreasing the risk of an abnormal heart beat and slowing the growth of artery-clogging plaque, creating less risk for cardiovascular disease. Quinoa, while serving as a great change-of-pace from rice, is also loaded with protein and heart-healthy oleic acid and can help to reduce high cholesterol which can contribute to heart disease.

Take a healthy cooking class with your partner or a friend. Not only will you learn something new together, but you’ll also get to enjoy a delicious and nutritious homemade meal! Visit Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, Williams Sonoma at West Towne or Whole Foods Market on University Avenue (or visit them on the web) to check out and sign up for a class today!

Get busy baking at home. By preparing your own dessert, you control the calories! Try the easy chocolate and fruit fondue recipe included below. By replacing the butter and cream found in many indulgent desserts with yogurt and fruit you not only save calories, but also get rid of unhealthy saturated fats which can harm the heart.

Instead of devouring an entire box of Russell Stover Chocolates or a Big Bag of Reese’s Hearts in front of the TV…

Choose a square or two or dark chocolate (just make sure it has at least 70 percent cocoa content) and a handful of roasted almonds to enjoy fireside with your sweetie or a good book. The cocoa found in dark chocolate (70 percent plus cocoa) contains compounds that have antioxidant-like effects and can help reduce cell damage in the heart. In addition, cocoa, along with almonds, contains essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to reduce cholesterol levels.

Place the box in the freezer and indulge in one piece every night or two. After all, things tend to taste better when they are savored.

Enjoy a five-ounce glass of red wine in a warm, relaxing bath. Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, is thought to help prevent blood clots and damage to blood vessels, thus promoting a healthy heart.

Instead of going to a sappy, overpriced movie and sitting still in the theater for two hours with your hands in a bucket of buttery popcorn …

Take an after-dinner walk with your lover. This relaxing activity not only lets you burn some calories, but also gives you a chance to connect with your loved one. Two hours of walking equals 560 calories burned plus meaningful conversation; two hours of movie-watching equals 136 calories burned plus greasy popcorn fingers. Take your pick.

Spend the afternoon on the slopes or snowshoeing through the woods with friends. Physical activity exercises your heart and makes it stronger, plus the snow (hopefully) won’t be around for too much longer!

Try out a new yoga or spin class together and make smoothies at home to refuel. Try adding flax, chia or hemp seeds to your favorite low-fat yogurt, some frozen fruit and a splash of juice for a delicious, protein-packed smoothie with healthy heart benefits. Seeds like flax, chia and hemp are great sources of alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid that decreases inflammation and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Share the love by volunteering with a group at Habitat for Humanity. Your heart will benefit from the physical labor, and you’ll get to spend the time catching up with your friends all while giving back to those in the community. Check out the University of Wisconsin chapter at their website for volunteer opportunities!

Creamy Chocolate Fruit Fondue

This easy recipe is special enough for Valentine’s Day, yet simple, easy and light enough to enjoy on any day of the week. Saturated-fat laden cream is replaced with low-fat yogurt or milk, and antioxidant-rich fresh fruit is used as dippers to make this once-indulgent dessert fit for your heart.

Yields: 2 servings

Ingredients:

  • 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons low-fat vanilla yogurt or low-fat milk
  • 1 tablespoon freshly brewed espresso
  • ½ teaspoon real vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Fresh fruit for dipping (banana slices, pineapple chunks, apple wedges, strawberries, etc.)

Directions:
Place chocolate, yogurt or milk, espresso, vanilla and salt in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave mixture on medium-power, making sure to stir every 20 seconds, until completely melted, one to two minutes. Pour the chocolate mixture into a serving bowl or fondue pot. Serve with fresh fruit, using toothpicks or skewers for dipping. (Note: this is best enjoyed immediately as the chocolate mixture will stiffen as it cools if not place in a fondue pot.)

Recipe adapted from Eating Well Magazine.

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