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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
Ingredients:
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
Ingredients:
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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salmon-saladEating well is one of the most important steps we can take toward a healthy heart. In study after study, an unhealthy diet has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, but choosing the right foods can go a long way toward improving cardiovascular health.

According to experts at the American Heart Association, eating oily fish at least twice a week should be part of heart-healthy eating plan. The beneficial Omega-3 fats found in certain fish (such as salmon, trout and herring) promote heart health—in part due to their natural anti-inflammatory properties—and the AHA recommends eating two 3.5-ounce servings each week. Here are two quick and easy recipes to help you get started:

Baked Trout with Spinach & Tomatoes
Serves 2
Ingredients:
Two 4-ounce trout fillets
One 10-ounce package fresh spinach
2 small plum tomatoes, sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. chopped pitted black olives
1 tbsp. drained capers
2 tbsp. fresh orange juice
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions: Preheat oven to 400°. Place fillets in shallow glass baking dish. Top with the spinach, tomatoes, shallots, olives, and capers. Drizzle orange juice over each fillet. Bake approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remove from oven; sprinkle with pepper and serve immediately.

Grilled Wild Salmon with Mango Relish
Serves 2
Ingredients:
½ small mango (pulp removed), diced
2 tbsp. diced red bell pepper
1 tbsp. diced red onion
1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp. grated lime zest
½ tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. fresh lime juice
Two 4-ounce wild salmon fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions: To prepare the relish, combine mango, red pepper, onion, parsley, cilantro, lime zest, garlic and lime juice; refrigerate 1 hour. Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper; grill until fish flakes (about 4 minutes per side). Top fillets with relish and serve.

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