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CAT | Mental Health

cocoa-heartGive the gift of chocolate this Valentine’s Day and you may be giving your sweetheart’s brain a healthy boost. After an eight-week study, researchers in Italy found more evidence that the natural flavanols in cocoa are linked to improved thinking and memory skills.

In a study of nearly 100 older adults in good mental health, those who consumed a daily beverage containing either 520 mg or 993 mg of cocoa flavanols performed better in tests that measured memory, attention span and overall cognitive function including reasoning and problem solving.

Flavanols are a type of plant nutrient found abundantly in cocoa beans, and previous studies have linked them to healthy blood pressure and improved cardiovascular function. Dark chocolate typically has more flavanols than milk chocolate, but experts say cocoa powder is best. And even better is cacao powder—a less processed version of cocoa powder available at health food stores.

Try these sweet and simple cacao recipes for Valentine’s Day!

Decadent Cacao & Avocado Mousse
Serves: 4
1 avocado
¼ cup cacao powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tbsp. chia seeds

Directions: Place avocado, cacao powder, vanilla, and almond milk in food processor and process until smooth; stir in chia seeds. Transfer mixture to medium bowl; refrigerate 1 hour. Scoop into individual bowls and serve chilled.

Not-So-Sinful Nut Butter Cups
Makes 16 individual cups
5 tbsp. coconut cream concentrate (coconut butter)
5 tbsp. coconut oil (best if in liquid form)
6 tbsp. cacao powder
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lo han (monk fruit) sweetener
3 tbsp. nut butter of choice (cashew, sunflower, almond)

Directions: Mix all ingredients except nut butter in a medium bowl. Place ½ tsp. of mixture into each cup of a mini muffin pan. Freeze about 10 minutes. Set remaining mixture aside. Add ¼ tsp. nut butter atop each frozen “cup.” Add another ½ tsp. of the cacao mixture on top of the nut butter; freeze again about 15 minutes (to harden).

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This monthman-holding-dog you’re bound to hear a lot about heart health—its impact on Americans, the right numbers to know, and the things you can do every day to keep your heart healthy. And, as it turns out, those with canine companions may have an advantage when it comes to that last one.

Recently the American Heart Association issued a statement saying pet owners are less likely than non-owners to develop heart disease. The report was based on data the AHA gathered about people and their pets (mostly dog owners) and went on to say that having a four-legged companion could conceivably be part of a heart disease prevention strategy.

But is it just that dogs make us exercise more, and exercise is good for the heart? Not necessarily—though the added physical activity is a plus. Research has shown that dog owners typically have lower blood pressure than non-owners, and while exercise certainly plays a role in promoting healthy blood pressure, it may also have something to do with the overall calming effect that comes from petting a dog.

And speaking of calm, our canine companions also seem to help us handle stress better. While most people experience an increase in heart rate and blood pressure when faced with a stressful situation, dog owners tend to have a less intense cardiovascular response. That means their heart rate and blood pressure are not so quick to skyrocket, and when they do become elevated, they take less time to return to normal. Finally, dog ownership has also been linked to healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which are important for heart health.

So, amid all the advice you’ll hear this month about eating well and staying active, take a moment to say thanks to your best friend for giving you a head start on a healthier heart.

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