I was recently asked to come up with a heart healthy recipe that would be quick and easy to prepare. As I was contemplating the recipe, I pondered the basics of eating heart healthy and how to incorporate them into your daily diet. Something people know from having it beaten into their memories time and time again is to watch your fat intake, watch cholesterol and eat less salt. We knoow certain foods are higher in “good fats” and omega 3 fatty acids, like salmon, but beyond that, what we don’t know is how to take that knowledge and actually apply it.
There are a couple of basic rules of thumb to follow that you can apply regularly even with existing recips to alter them and make them heart healthy. Number one, you should always reach for the olive oil instead of the butter. While butter is far better than margarine or shortening as it is absent of any trans fats, it is still high in fat and cholesterol and should be used in moderation. Keep in mind that butter produced from grass fed dairy cows will indeed be lower in cholesterol and higher in omega 3 fatty acids than regular butter, but nonetheless, use olive oil for maximum health benefits.
An alternative to olive oil for those willing to splurge a bit in terms of cost is Argan oil. This Moroccan specialty is pricey but is purported to be even higher in good fats and omega 3’s than olive oil. Only disadvantage is that it will cost about 3-4 times as much. But it’s intense flavor goes a long way so you don’t need as much to get good flavor. You can use it interchangeably in sauteeing and dressings. It has an intense nutty fragrance and flavor that resembles a cross between peanut and sesame oil.
A second rule of thumb is to reduce the amount of salt, but not to eliminate it. Hypertension is a primary culprit of heart disease and salt is known to elevate blood pressure. However, your body requires at least a minimum of salt intake a day to remain healthy. Generally speaking 1500 mg of sodium per day is recommended, which is approx. 2/3 a teaspoon of salt. Keep in mind sodium isn’t just found in salt. It can be found in a number of other items such as baking soda and even meat. Be sure to read labels carefully. Salt is a natural preservative so it is often added to cans and pre-packaged foods as a method of keeping those items fresh longer.
Third, losng weight. For men, particularly those love handles and for women, belly fat. Contrary to popular belief, there is no secret to losing weight. No magic pill you can take and poof. The only way to lose unwanted pounds and inches is to decrease calorie intake and increase exercise. What goes in must get put out. Simple math. Women generally should consume 2000 calories per day and men 2500. That is assuming that you are healthy, active and are generally not overweight. Cutting calories below that is the only way to shed pounds. Losing weight equates to better overall cardiovascular health and therefore better heart health.
But how you ask? How do I do all this and still enjoy myself. There are a couple of tricks of the trade. Vegetables are almost free in terms of calories. You can eat large quantities that will fill you up and won’t make you gain a pound. Now, I’m not talking about potatoes and other starches, I’m talking about things like green leafy veggies, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, etc. Saute them lightly in some olive oil or eat them in a salad, just hold the ranch dressing.
Lean proteins are a must as they will keep you full and give you energy to do your daily work for a longer period of time. Complex carbs and starches simply give you a quick sugar high, which rapidly disappears. Good choices for protein are salmon, boneless skinless chicken breast or grass fed beef, which is very low in cholesterol and high in omega three fatty acids. You want to eat a portion that is about the size of your palm.
Nuts and legumes are an excellent source of fiber and good fats that actually help your brain stay sharp and keep your digestion on track.
All of these naturally taste good, but the key to flavor with all of these is the use of spices. Not spicy salt blends, pure spices and fresh herbs that flavor naturally without calories or fat. The more you use, the less deprived you will feel. Don’t hold back either. Most people fear they will over season their food. This is virtually impossible. Learn how to combine spices in unusual ways, such as cinnamon, ginger and saffron with chicken or cumin, paprika and cilantro with fish.
Quick easy condiments to flavor with that don’t add too much by way of calories or fat are vinegars, mustards and chili pastes such as Harissa, which is a North African chili paste.
Use plenty of garlic and onions when cooking to create a base of flavor and cook with a little bit of red wine, which is known for its heart healthy benefits. You can also find plenty of low sodium broths for things like home made soups, which are infinitely lower in sodium then their canned alternatives.
These are all simple, easy ways to improve your heart health through your diet without losing flavor and fun. Eating should always be pleasurable even when you are watching what you eat. And don’t be afriad to splurge once in a while. One ice cream cone or bag of salty chips won’t kill you. Continuous consumption of ice cream and chips might.