SOUTHINGTON – To honor both Valentine’s Day and National Heart Month, the Calendar House Senior Center is hosting a special event called “Heart Healthy Valentine’s” on Wednesday. The event is presented by ShopRite of Southington’s retail dietician, Marisa McCoy, and will focus on healthy eating habits and desserts.
“We’ll work out which chocolate is good for your heart, which chocolates are bad for your heart, how much you should be eating,” McCoy said. “It’s a fun twist on the science between health and nutrition.”
McCoy plans to focus on Wednesday’s Coffee ‘n Dessert on the connection between heart health, nutrition and preventive self-care.
Heart disease was the leading cause of death among Connecticut residents in 2019, accounting for nearly a quarter of all state deaths that year, according to the state Department of Public Health.
In addition, the Centers For Disease Control reported key risk factors for heart disease including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use. Preventative care for most cardiovascular diseases is based on making heart-healthy changes, such as exercising more, quitting smoking and eating healthier.
To address these concerns, McCoy said his presentation would cover trans and saturated fats found in food and ideas for creating a healthy diet with fats beneficial to heart health, such as omega-3 fatty acids.
Rather than enforcing strict diets, McCoy said most of her counseling and presentation sessions focused on lifestyle and behavioral changes, modifications and reflections.
“I find that deprivation definitely doesn’t work in the long run,” she said.
McCoy also plans to break down the foods that are good and bad for the heart while providing alternatives for unhealthy items.
For example, since it’s Valentine’s Day McCoy is bringing dark chocolate bars with varying degrees of cacao for attendees to try. She explained that dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and is a good substitute for typical milk chocolate because it does not have high amounts of saturated fats or sugars.
She added that since dark chocolate is typically bitter, there’s a lower chance of “pigging out.”
Although McCoy said that she still hasn’t decided what dessert she plans to bring in, she knows it’s full of antioxidants and tastes delicious.
“It’s got some health component in addition to being delicious too,” she said. “Even healthy food tastes good.”
Coffee ‘n Desserts is a recurrent educational series that covers various topics with local experts, said Dawn Saggis, program coordinator for the senior center. While watching the presentation, attendees can drink complimentary coffee and desserts provided by the presenters.
Topics are tailored to the needs and interests of Calendar House’s members, such as Medicare, fraud schemes and memory care.
Heart health is particularly important to seniors since Connecticut residents 65 and over are nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease, according to DPH.
“We’re trying to help educate our members. We’re trying to bring relevant topics to them and things that we think they would be interested in,” Saggis said. “It’s a good way for them to come in a casual setting with no pressure and listen to some information and hopefully learn something.”
McCoy began working with the Calendar House about five years ago as a guest presenter for their Taking Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS) program, Saggis said. The TOPS group learned about lifestyle changes to help them lose weight through healthy eating.
Saggis proposed McCoy become a regular Coffee ‘N Desserts presenter in 2022 so more of their members had access to her counseling services. The “Heart Healthy Valentine’s” will be McCoy’s third Coffee ‘n Dessert presentation.
“Everybody’s interested in trying to eat a little bit healthier,” Saggis said.
McCoy said the Calendar House’s generation is one of the most challenging generations to change their habits. Lifelong conditioning is hard to break, but attendees are excited to learn and often apply her advice in real life.
“Their health is a priority and I think they love learning too,” she said. “They love hearings [about] a new version of what they should be eating, what they should be doing to keep them healthy…They actually want to know it. They’re really going to make the changes. They’re going to move forward with a healthier, better life.”
Ralph Chin joined the Calendar House last July and is a regular attendee of the center’s numerous events, including Coffee ‘n Dessert. He was in the crowd during McCoy’s previous event – ”Cholesterol 101.”
McCoy said the “Cholesterol 101” meeting focused on untangling cholesterol misinformation, such as its genetic component and presence in foods. At the meeting, Chin said McCoy brought handouts of different, healthy recipes, brought samples for taste tests and showed what foods were good to eat.
Chin explained that nutrition is essential for seniors and appreciated McCoy’s attention to detail and the in-depth nature of her presentation. He also added that McCoy was very receptive to questions from the audience during the presentation and was willing to talk through the attendees’ nutrition and health concerns.
“All of us wish we had been better at nutrition when we were [McCoy’s] age,” he said. “But we understand that we can make changes in nutrition now and it will still make a tremendous difference.”
Chin said he applied many of McCoy’s teachings, such as trading chips for toasted bean sprouts and eating more “good cholesterol foods.”
He’s already signed up for the upcoming “Heart Healthy Valentine’s” and is excited to learn more about nutrition from McCoy. He plans on taking whatever advice McCoy gives to heart.
“I would be shocked if at the end of the presentation next week, I didn’t learn anything,” he said. “I’m going to learn something. I know it and I’m looking forward to it with confidence.”
Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. For more on RFA go to www.reportforamerica.org/. Villalonga-Vivoni can be reached at [email protected].