02/14/2012 07:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Valentine's Day, Have a (Healthy) Heart

Today, millions of Americans will give heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to our special someones, get little heart-shaped pillows and stuffed toys from them, and even (though hopefully not) run out at the last possible minute to pick up whatever heart-shaped Valentine's Day card the Hallmark store has left.

But what about our actual hearts? While we're immersed in heart-shaped imagery today, I thought I'd take a moment to share some information on how we can become a more heart-healthy nation.

The best way to ensure that our hearts keep on pumping for a long time -- so we can each enjoy many future Valentine's Days -- is to reduce the amount of meat, eggs, and dairy we consume. Personally, I don't eat any meat (or dairy or eggs), and last time I had it checked, my ticker is top notch. That's no surprise, considering what The American Heart Association has to say: "Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They're also usually lower than non-vegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer."

And there's plenty of other evidence, too. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, for example, discusses the impact that vegan diets can have on the heart in his now-famous book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Esselstyn's research shows that a plant-based diet can prevent heart-disease, stop its progression, and even reverse it!

In part because of Esselstyn's work -- and similar research by doctors Dean Ornish and T. Colin Campbell -- Bill Clinton announced in 2011 that he's adopted a vegan diet. "I essentially concluded that I had played Russian roulette," Clinton said. "I was lucky I did not die of a heart attack." And since becoming vegan? "All my blood tests are good, and my vital signs are good, and I feel good, and I also have, believe it or not, more energy," says Clinton.

So how can folks get on a heart-healthier path? Well, you could of course go cold Tofurky like President Clinton and many others have. And there are plenty of great resources out there for folks who want to do that.

Another option, and one that I'm a huge fan of, is leaning into it through Meatless Monday. Meatless Monday is a great way to start exploring new, healthy, plant-based foods without totally overhauling your diet. Each Monday, try something new: veggie burgers, exotic fare like Chana Masala, falafel and baba ganoush, Ethiopian flatbread called enjera topped with lentils and collards, or delicious meat alternatives like crispy lime battered "chick'n" nuggets and spicy vegan sausages. Get a feel for all the great-tasting meat-free foods available -- and feel better in the process. Trust me, you'll love it. And making some simple changes in your diet will help ensure your ticker keeps ticking for many more Valentine's days to come.

For more by Kathy Freston, click here.

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