Be kind to your heart this month

February has long been designated the month of the heart. Your heart will beat about 2.5 billion times over an average lifespan. As a result, millions of gallons of blood circulate to all parts of the body. This steady flow carries oxygen, nutrients, hormones and other compounds throughout the body to maintain health. It also removes waste products of metabolism.

While the heart is designed to work a lifetime, there are factors that can impair its ability to function properly. Currently, heart disease accounts for one-third of all deaths worldwide. A poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, infection, some genetic conditions and stress along with other factors can impair the heart’s ability to function at maximum capacity.

Stress management is necessary to avoid multiple inflammatory health conditions — including heart disease. Linked to increased inflammation in the body, stress can elevate blood pressure and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol. Chronic stress can also affect sleep patterns, food choices and weight management.

Knowing stress and dietary choices have a major influence on heart health, it is important to choose foods that positively influence blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation. At the top of the list is leafy greens. Leafy greens are high in vitamin K and nitrates. Vitamin K protects the arteries and is important for proper blood clotting. Meanwhile, dietary nitrates reduce blood pressure, decrease arterial stiffness and improve the cellular lining of vessels.

Additionally, berries such as blueberries, blackberries and strawberries are filled with antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress. Blueberries help with blood pressure and blood clotting. Strawberries improve insulin resistance and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Dozens of studies sign the praises of berries and heart health.

Not to be overlooked, avocados are a rich source of healthy fats. Avocados are an excellent source of potassium, which is essential to heart health. In addition to supplying 28 percent of your daily potassium, they also provide a means to lower LDL and provide weight management.

Another often overlooked food is the tomato. Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene. Low blood levels of lycopene are linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition, lycopene is linked to increasing HDL (good) cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL help remove excess LDL and plaque from the arteries and protect against heart disease.

However, the list does not stop here! Almonds are high in fiber and monounsaturated fats — linked to reducing cholesterol and belly fat. Chia seeds, flaxseeds and hemp seeds are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Adding these seeds can reduce inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.

So, any way you look at it, the evidence is mounting to support influencing every aspect of heart health through healthy dietary and lifestyle choices.

Dr. Dianna Richardson has been serving Jefferson City and the surrounding communities for more than 20 years. She has worked in the field of health and nutrition as a wellness practitioner for more than 30 years. Core to her practice remains use of nutrition to improve health, vitality and quality of life. Richardson holds a doctorate in naturopathy, along with degrees in nutrition and a master’s degree in public health education. She may be found at the Health, Wellness & Nutrition Center, LLC on Dix Road in Jefferson City.

SWEET POTATO WAFFLES WITH BLUEBERRY SYRUP

Makes: 6 servings

FOR THE SYRUP

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

2 tablespoons water if using fresh berries

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon light molasses

Pinch of ground cloves

FOR THE WAFFLES

1/3 cup peeled and diced sweet potato (about 1/3 of a large sweet potato) or 1/4 cup canned pumpkin puree

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cornmeal, preferably stone-ground

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

1 cup plain soy milk

2 tablespoons light molasses

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg white

In a saucepan, combine the blueberries, water (if using), lemon juice and zest, honey, 1 tablespoon molasses and cloves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the berries burst and the juices are slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Frozen berries may take slightly longer to thicken. Set aside and keep warm.

Meanwhile, pierce the sweet potato and place in microwave until soft (about 6 minutes). Puree in a food processor or mash with a potato masher until smooth. Set aside to cool. (Note: Skip this step if using pumpkin puree.)

In a small bowl, sit together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and ginger. In a large bowl, whisk together the soy milk, mashed sweet potato (or pumpkin puree), olive oil and molasses. Add the flour mixture and stir just until combined.

Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the egg white until stiff peaks form.

Gently whisk 1/3 of the egg white into the batter to lighten it. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the remaining egg white into the batter until just incorporated.

Heat a waffle iron. Spoon or ladle about 1/2 cup batter into the waffle iron. Spread evenly and cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Transfer the waffle to the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve waffles with the blueberry syrup.