Spread some Valentine’s Love, in a healthy way

What’s Valentine’s Day without chocolate? Hey, what’s a few more pounds, right?

We asked our resident nutrition expert, Amanda Erickson, RD, LDN, the Chief Clinical Dietician at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center, her advice on getting through the holiday without adding pounds.

Here are some great tips from Amanda:

Valentine’s Day is a day of sweet treats, chocolate, and such. Just how much is too much?

Treats don’t have to mean sweets. Treats are anything that you wouldn’t normally have on a day-to-day basis. If you think of treating yourself in ways other than specific types of foods, you may find you have a healthier outlook on holidays or gatherings in general. Treating yourself may be going out to dinner instead of slaving over a fancy home cooked meal, or taking off work a little early to surprise your significant other. We all look forward to doing or eating things that are out of the ordinary when we have occasions such as holidays, guests in town, etc. I would encourage thinking outside of the chocolate box for the real reason we are celebrating this holiday…love! We want to love our bodies as well, and a great way to do that is to remember we need to take care of them. If you crave sweets and know that they will be available to you on these days, plan accordingly. Never skip meals, but remember to choose lighter options so that your indulgence doesn’t cause you to go overboard. A one-time piece of pie or cake will likely cost you 300-500 calories, depending on the serving size (you can monitor the total amount of calories on prepackaged treats by looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel). 500 calories extra every day for a week adds up to 1 pound of weight gain (3500 calories=1 pound). However, if you can limit your indulgences to one small treat, and remember to account for it later, you can defer this weight gain. For example, if you eat one bite sized candy bar at 90 calories, but skip your afternoon coffee with 3 creamers, you will be right on calorie budget for the day!

Can you speak about healthy alternatives that may satisfy that sweet tooth, serve to add a bit of romance, but also not bust the calorie bank?

If you are determined to skip the candy and know that you can do without, there are absolutely sweet alternatives. Fruit parfaits with Greek yogurt, low-calorie granola, and fruit make a great snack or dessert. Mixed fruit cups with a small amount of whipped topping are sweet as can be. If you want to be romantic, melt a small serving of dipping chocolate or peanut butter and dip your own apple or strawberry slices in. Do you enjoy trail mix? You and your partner or group of friends can have a little fun with a create-your-own trail mix with healthy ingredients such as nuts, dried fruit, and small portions of yogurt chips or chocolate chips. As mentioned earlier, you don’t have to forgo your cravings, but practice moderation and have fun!

More broadly, if you have someone who is trying to watch what they eat to lose some weight, what advice do you have to help them navigate a holiday such as Valentine’s Day?

If you have a sweet craving you are trying to conquer, you may need to ask yourself if something else will truly make you satisfied. It may be easier to decide to let yourself have what it is you want, than to try to “eat around it.” What typically happens in this case is that we try an alternate that doesn’t meet our standards and then we seek another food to fill the void. This tends to lead to eating more calories overall than just eating the food you initially wanted. If what you really want is that chocolate your loved one so thoughtfully picked out for you, don’t feel guilty about indulging, but don’t overdo it. Check the serving size and stick to it—no matter how good it tastes!

Every once in a while, articles will pop up touting the health benefits of chocolate. Is there something to it, or is it just bunk?

Dark chocolate with greater than 70% cocoa has been shown as having health benefits related to its’ antioxidant properties. Studies have shown correlation between cocoa consumption and heart health, such as decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and improved cholesterol levels. This type of chocolate is not what you find in your average peanut butter cup or snickers, however, and people often find that the ‘good-for-you’ chocolate is somewhat bitter compared to what they are used to. Remember that, and try it with an open mind. Although it is not sweet, it is still satisfying as it is high in calories and fat. The biggest mistake that dieters make is to believe that ‘good’ foods mean ‘free’ foods, and that they can consume it in unlimited quantities. Even though it may be good for your heart, it isn’t good for your hips. Stick to a single square as a serving and remember to savor that flavor!

Do you have any advice on turning Valentine’s Day into a healthy eating lesson for children?

There are always ways to put a fun and healthy spin on foods and food prep! Starting children young allows them to form healthy habits at a young age that carry throughout their lives. Food doesn’t have to be loaded with sugar to be made into fun shapes or to taste sweet! Often times it is the marketing strategies that make certain foods appealing, especially to children who are easy to influence. Use that power of influence to create your own foods your children can’t resist. Can you make a project out of making heart shaped sandwiches for family lunches? Could you find fun shapes or multiple colors of fruits and veggies to cut up foods to make them irresistible? There are so many ways kids can have fun in the kitchen. It could be anything from filling trail mix to hand out with Valentine’s cards or simply being able to taste some of the fresh berries you are putting into a fruit salad. Just include them, and give them opportunity to measure, scoop, or stir. Not only can you teach valuable lessons but you’ll have little helpers that may just be cooking meals for you one day!

Do you have any recipes to share with our 25,000 regular readers?

The great news about creating healthy dishes is that the ingredients are simple, and the variations are endless! If you are using fresh fruits and vegetables, you can pick and choose what you like or even what is on sale!

I love using strawberries shaped like hearts and throwing them into different dishes, sticking them on skewers or even just as garnishes.

I love using cookie cutters for foods other than cookies! If you cut a heart out of whole wheat toast and fill it with an egg to make a sweet breakfast sandwich (without the second slice of toast) to wake up your loved ones on Valentine’s morning.