Love is sweet. And some of the most common terms of endearment reflect that metaphor: sugar, honey, sweetheart, sweetie, honeybunch, high fructose corn syrup… Well, maybe not that last one. But given the connection we draw between romantic love and sweetness, it’s no surprise that our culture celebrates Valentine’s Day by encouraging the consumption of sweet foods. In this article, we’ll explore how you can enjoy healthy Valentine’s treats and gifts without giving in to consumerism or contributing to sugar-fueled diseases. After all, love is never having to say, “I’m sorry I spiked your blood glucose to 300mg/dL.”
The Evolution of Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day originated as a religious celebration, commemorating the martyrdom of one of the St. Valentines. One of, you ask? Well, it turns out that there were at least three Christian saints named Valentine (or Valentinus, if you took Latin in high school), all of whom were martyred. (Pro tip: Don’t name your kid “Valentine.”) Valentine “A” allegedly died at the command of Claudius II for the crime of performing secret marriages. Valentine “B,” a bishop, was beheaded by the same Claudius. And Valentine “C” was an imprisoned Roman centurion who fell in love with the Christian daughter of his jailer, and signed his secret letters to her, “From your Valentine.”
So we can see the romantic roots of today’s holiday in at least two of these origin stories. They probably arose as an attempt to Christianize a very popular Roman pagan holiday, Lupercalia, which was celebrated from February 13-15. Lupercalia, according to some sources, was observed: “to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health, productivity, and fertility.”
The holiday got its ecclesiastical stamp of approval at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius simultaneously outlawed the observance of Lupercalia and declared February 14th the Day of Saint Valentine. The pagan fertility angle remained, however, in the folk belief that February 14th was the official start of bird mating season. Throughout the middle ages, the holiday celebrated both piety and romance.
Secular Valentine’s Traditions
What the medieval Valentine’s Day lacked, of course, was Hershey’s Miniatures and Russell Stover individually wrapped assortment boxes. Cacao wouldn’t hit European shelves until the mid-16th century, and sugar, imported from Mediterranean lands, was prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive to produce. The tradition of sending cards, or “Valentines,” to loved ones, began in the 15th century and grew in popularity over the centuries. By the mid-1800s, American companies were mass-producing Valentine’s Day cards, which opened the door to the full commercialization of the holiday, including giving boxes of chocolate, bouquets of red roses, and expensive jewelry.
These days, the holiday isn’t just for love and lust; in addition to those with romantic interests to communicate, it’s common for friends and family members to exchange valentines, do something special for each other, or gift sweet treats like chocolate or candy.
Valentine’s Day & Sugar
But modern observances of Valentine’s Day center around prodigious amounts of sugar. You can buy chocolate assortments for a couple of bucks at your local drugstore, or splurge on Belgian or Swiss truffles at eye-popping prices. The world’s most expensive chocolate, the La Madeline au Truffe from Connecticut-based House of Knipschildt, retails for $250 for a single piece. (Weirdly, it’s actually a chocolate-covered fungus, in case you were thinking of pulling out your credit card.)
The Valentine’s Day chocolate connection was forged by an opportunistic entrepreneur, Richard Cadbury, who, in the 1840s, figured out how to improve the taste of hot chocolate by removing the cocoa butter. He also more or less invented the category of “eating chocolate.” Then, he had the idea of putting those chocolates in fancy boxes, which could be refilled and regifted after the chocolate was gone. From there, it was a short leap to heart-shaped boxes, and here we are.
Of course, chocolate candy isn’t the only game in town when it comes to Valentine’s Day sugar delivery. We also give each other candy hearts, cupcakes, and other forms of chocolate to express our love. And there’s the rub, as far as I’m concerned: sugar, especially in its processed and refined form, isn’t exactly a health food.
Most Americans consume way more sugar than is good for us. While the recommended daily upper limit for added sugar is six teaspoons for women and nine for men, the average American takes in 17 teaspoons each day, which adds up to about 57 pounds and 100,000 calories per year.
Plus, sugar is addictive, apparently lighting up the same areas of the brain as cocaine, and causing a sizable dopamine rush. And it contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
So giving your dear ones too many sugar-rich treats for Valentine’s Day may not be the kindest way to show your love.
Creating Healthier Valentine’s Day Traditions
One of the nice things about knowing history is that you can see where and how traditions began, so it doesn’t seem like “it’s always been that way.” It also gives you the freedom to drop traditions that no longer serve you and replace them with healthier and more meaningful ones.
So how can you show your love this Valentine’s Day? Let me count the ways. And I’ll pay homage to the great Romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning by doing it in sonnet form:
If you would like to demonstrate your love,
And show how dear you hold them in your heart.
You don’t need Chocolate Promises from Dove.
The following ideas should prove a start.
Just pick for them a natural bouquet —
Include sweet herbs like lavender and sage.
A picture book (stick-figures are OK!)
Can show your love on every single page.
To make your deep affection even clearer,
Express your creativity in verse.
Affix a Post-It to their shaving mirror,
Or hide a love note inside their purse.
Do them a kindness. Write for them a song.
So many ways to say your love is strong!
You can also do things that I couldn’t come up with rhymes for, like handcrafting a gift or engaging in an anonymous act of kindness for a loved one — or on their behalf.
And then there’s food. You can prepare a fancy, delicious savory meal that shows you care or signals your amorous intent (you can Google “plant-based aphrodisiacs” for more ideas).
If you want to stick with the sweet theme, however, there are plenty of healthier Valentine’s treat options — especially when you make your own at home. You can find a bunch of sweet, whole food, sugar alternatives in this article. Evoke a Valentine’s Day vibe by shaping food into hearts by using a cookie cutter or your hands. And if you want to be anatomically correct, you can even find a cookie cutter that’s shaped like an actual heart, complete with atria and ventricles.
Red is the customary Valentine’s Day color, but rather than stain your food with artificial dyes, try using red foods such as tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, beets, red bell peppers, etc., in your healthy Valentine’s treats to stay on theme. As a bonus, the chemicals responsible for these foods’ ruby hues are the awesomely healthy lycopene and anthocyanins. Now that’s a way to show your love!
If you’re gift-giving, stick to the theme of the day by presenting your food gifts in a DIY heart-shaped box that would make MacGyver proud. Just keep those fingers safe from the craft knife, or your box will be red for the wrong reason! If cutting and gluing isn’t your thing, you can wrap your gift in a reusable cotton bag with a heart stenciled on it. After your beloved removes the gift, they can take the bag shopping and show everyone in the produce section how much they’re adored.
7 Healthy Valentines Treats to DIY
Whether you’re celebrating someone close to you, honoring self-love, or dedicating the holiday to family time, these healthy Valentine’s treats are sure to please with their myriad flavors and nutrient-powered ingredients.
Make the Red Velvet Pancakes for breakfast and top them with berries to start the Valentine’s festivities. Or, blend a Chocolate Raspberry Smoothie for two. (Did you know that chocolate was symbolic of love and used in ceremonial matrimonies many, many years ago?)
If you or the special people in your life prefer the savory side of things, then prepare them a Vegan Ceviche appetizer followed by hearty and comforting Roasted Red Pepper Pasta. Finally, choose from a variety of desserts or perhaps create a fun dessert-tasting tray by making the Raspberry-Filled Chocolate Cups, Decadent Chocolate Dusted Cheesecake, and the Acai Dark Chocolate Truffles. Happy, healthy Valentine’s Day to you and your loved ones!
1. Red Velvet Pancakes
Want to see your partner swoon this Valentine’s Day? Wake up first to start preparing these breakfast beauties before your partner starts to rouse. (Luckily, you don’t actually have to wake up that early as these pancakes take only minutes to prepare!) The rich aroma will be a natural wake up call that’s sure to elevate their morning mood. These pancakes are different from traditional pancakes in that they’re low in sugar and packed with fiber from the oat flour and raspberries.
2. Chocolate Raspberry Smoothie
Get ready for one of the most delicious and healthy Valentine’s treats. Surprise your partner (or your mom or BFF) with a tasty, creamy, and nutritious Chocolate Raspberry Smoothie that’s packed with phytonutrients from the cacao, vitamin C from the raspberries, and healthy, plant-based fats from the almonds. Bonus: it could pass as dessert!
3. Vegan Ceviche
If you’re looking to make a romantic, love-themed dinner, we have you covered. Start with this Vegan Ceviche that uses hearts of palm and tomatoes in place of the fish that’s used to create traditional ceviche. Not only will your appetizer impress, but it will also be the beginning of a fun and flavor-filled night if you follow up with the Roasted Red Pepper Pasta and Decadent Chocolate Dusted Cheesecake. This will be a Valentine’s night to remember!
4. Roasted Red Pepper Pasta
A romantic dinner for two, a February 14th family feast, or a celebration of self-love — whichever it is for you, this is an ideal main course. If it’s dinner for one, you’ll have leftovers all week long. If it’s dinner for two, your partner will leave the table with a full belly and a happy heart. If you’re cooking for your crowd, then get ready to include this as a family-favorite staple in your recipe library!
5. Raspberry Filled Chocolate Cups
Something about the combination of chocolate and raspberry is divine. The slight bitterness and sweetness of the dark chocolate plus the tart fruitiness of the raspberry — these two were meant for each other! They’re a match made in heaven, which is what your loved one might be singing to you when they bite into these chocolate cups.
6. Decadent Chocolate Dusted Cheesecake
Calling all cheesecake lovers! This nut-based, cocoa dusted cheesecake is OMG delicious! Cashews create creaminess, macadamia nuts create richness, and almonds create a naturally sweet flavor. Add that creamy “cheese” to a sweet and slightly salty pecan crust, and you have a recipe that will swoon even the hardest to impress cheesecake aficionados.
7. Açaí Dark Chocolate Truffles
Traditional dark chocolate truffles are often made with milk or cream, but these exquisite truffles get their creaminess from avocado. Once the chocolate sets in the refrigerator, get ready to roll your (clean) hands in dark chocolate (the fun part!) before coating them with açaí powder for an additional antioxidant boost and pretty pink color.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
You can have a healthy and happy love-holiday! Think outside the (heart-shaped) box, and find ways to show your love minus the sugar and consumerism. If you want to give a sweet treat for Valentine’s Day (or consume one yourself), consider these healthier versions of sweets and treats that are made with foods that will also love you (and your Valentine) back. Now that’s amore!
Tell us in the comments:
- What’s the most meaningful Valentine’s Day gift you’ve ever given or received (or heard about)?
- What’s your favorite red food? How do you like to eat it?
- Which of the above recipes will you try this year?