Sweet treats CAN be part of a heart-healthy diet

February is synonymous with hearts — for Valentine's Day and for American Heart Month. What a fitting time to think about the heart and what can be done to maintain its health.

Heart disease is often thought of as a "men's disease," but it is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common heart disease in the United States is coronary heart disease, which often appears as a heart attack. In 2010, an estimated 785,000 Americans had a new coronary attack, and about 470,000 had a recurrent attack, says the CDC.

What may surprise some is that women account for nearly 50 percent of heart disease deaths in the U.S. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women aged 65 years and older, according to the CDC. It is the second leading cause of death among women aged 45-64.

In 2004, the American Heart Association chose February as the month to launch a national campaign to bring awareness of these statistics to women. Go Red for Women is an initiative designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health, and, hopefully, save lives.

According to the AHA, only 55 percent of women even realize heart disease is their No. 1 killer. Through public events and an information campaign, The Go Red For Women movement works to make sure women know they are at risk so they can take action to protect their health. Locally, the Chicago Go Red for Women Community Expo will be held Feb. 24 at the University of Illinois Chicago Forum. (For information, call 312-476-6672.)

Diet is an important part of heart health for everyone. So, while we celebrate Valentine's Day and Heart Month, what better time to turn our attention to heart-healthy desserts. Indeed, you may be wondering if there is such a thing?

"Nutrient-rich foods such as granola, yogurt, and fresh fruit are an alternative to traditional desserts such as cookies and ice cream, which are usually high in fat, sugar and calories," says Eric Meredith, a professional chef with a background in nutrition who is a volunteer spokesman for the American Heart Association.

In addition, there are many creative ways to reduce the sugar, fat and caloric content in desserts we love. "When baking, try using only half the butter, oil, or shortening and replace the other half with applesauce or pureed fruit," says Meredith. "Sugar can sometimes be replaced with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, or cloves. The ultimate goal is to choose healthy recipes and preparation methods that lower your caloric intake of sugar, fat, and other unhealthy ingredients."

Too, Meredith says, thinking about dessert as just another part of the meal reinforces that there are not good and bad foods. Whether you are consuming an entree or dessert, you should always watch your portions, consume a balance of wholesome nutrients, and try not to overindulge, he says.

The happy news is you don't have to forego desserts to enjoy good health. Stick with healthier recipes, such as the dessert of love — ambrosia — featured here, and reasonable portions.

And, note: You can have your cake, pie and cupcakes and eat them, too, if you follow some simple substitutions recommended by the American Heart Association.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now