02/10/2014 12:59 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

For the Love of Your Heart Eat These 4 Foods

Valentine's Day, a day of love and romance, is thought to be named after the patron Saint Valentine. While there are many stories about Saint Valentine, revealing him as a romantic and heroic figure, my favorite involves the notion of exchanging "valentines." This legend suggests that upon his imprisonment, Saint Valentine sent the very first "valentine" to a loved one and signed the note, "From your Valentine." This notation is still evident in today's greetings whereby the exchanging of valentines is believed by some to honor the death or burial of Saint Valentine sometime in mid-February.

While February has long been celebrated as a month of love and romance, it has also been deemed American Heart Month by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. With today's fast-paced lifestyle, people consume many unhealthy, processed foods, without a proper balance of fruits and vegetables in their diet. Obesity and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, have also contributed to the risk of developing heart disease. However, cardiovascular disease is preventable through exercise, smoking cessation, limited alcohol, and consumption of healthy oils, fruits, and vegetables and whole grains.

For this Valentine's Day, I would like to combine this concept of love and relationships with heart health. In other words, today is a day to love your heart. I want to introduce three delectable recipes for Valentines, using four of my favorite heart-healthy foods: avocados, walnuts, dark chocolate and kiwicha.

Although misconstrued for being high in fat, avocados are an example of a healthy fat. Eating avocados can decrease blood triglycerides and increase HDL, also known as the good cholesterol (1). Moreover, studies show that eating avocados can also decrease high blood pressure which lowers the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (2). Because of their creamy texture and fat content, avocados make a healthy replacement for other fats such as mayonnaise or oils in baked goods and desserts.

Walnuts are also rich in fiber and healthy fats that are beneficial to the cardiovascular system. They can help by decreasing bad cholesterol, decreasing inflammation, and increasing heart flexibility (3).

Cacao is the main ingredient in dark chocolate. The flavanols present in cacao have been proven to support healthy blood circulation by helping the arteries stay supple. Cacao has also been shown to help build resistance to oxidative stress, which when left uncontrolled, can lead to inflammation and atherosclerosis (4). Moreover, dark chocolate can be healthy alternative over milk chocolate; while milk chocolate contains 23 mg cholesterol, dark chocolate only contains 3 mg (5, 6).

Last but not least is kiwicha or amaranth. Kiwicha is a small seed that can be cooked as a grain, and it has a positive influence on the heart, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Not only does kiwicha contain fiber for a healthy heart, but it has also been proven to reduce LDL or "bad cholesterol." Kiwicha is an ACE inhibitor thus it helps reduce the risk for hypertension by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for an increase in blood pressure (7). Visit the recipes below and learn how to use these ingredients to make some delicious Valentine's treats.

For The Love of Your Heart Eat These 4 Foods
For The Love of Your Heart Eat These 4 Foods

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program, co-founder of Eat Mentor and author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good and his latest book Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes.

1.Domínguez, H., Juárez, C., Ledesma, L., Luna, H., Montalvo, C., Morán, L., Munari, F. (1996). Mono¬unsaturated fatty acid (avocado) rich diet for mild hypercholesterolemia. Archives of Medical Research, Volume 27, 519-23.
2.Hoffmann, G. & Schwingshackl, L. (2012) Monounsaturated fatty acids and risk of cardiovascular disease: valentines-daySynopsis of the evidence available from systemic reviews and meta-analyses. Nutri¬ents, Volume 4, 1989-2007.
3.Zhao G, Etherton TD, Martin KR, West SG, Gillies PJ, Kris-Etherton PM. Dietary {alpha}-Linolenic Acid Reduces Inflammatory and Lipid Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Hypercholesterolemic Men and Women. J Nutr. 2004 Nov;134(11):2991-2997. 2004. PMID:15514264.
4.Tapsell LC, Gillen LJ, Patch CS, Batterham M, Owen A, Bare M, Kennedy M. Including Walnuts in a Low-Fat/Modified-Fat Diet Improves HDL Cholesterol-to-Total Cholesterol Ratios in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2004 Dec;27(12):2777-83. 2004. PMID:15562184
5.Andújar, M., Giner, R.M., Recio, M.C., Ríos, J.L. Cocoa polyphenols and their potential benefits for human health. (2012). Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, Volume 2012.
6."Basic Report: 19904, Chocolate, Dark, 70-85% Cacao Solids." United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. .
Basic Report: 19120, Candies, Milk Chocolate." United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. .
7.Amaya-Farfán, J. & Caselato-Sousa, V. State of knowledge on amaranth grain: A comprehensive review. (2012). Journal of Food Science, Volume 77, Number 4.