Eat More Plants for a Healthy Heart

In case you missed my Heart Health Month article in last Thursday’s Democrat here it is. I talk about 5 important heart healthy foods, how to include them and how often. Two delicious recipes also included below!

February is Heart Health Month, a month to bring focus and awareness to heart disease and steps we can take to prevent it. Helping to spread the word about heart disease prevention is especially important to me after losing my Dad in November of 2017 after his own long battle with heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. and can present in many different ways. When we think of heart disease many of us automatically think of a sudden onset of symptoms, like a heart attack or stroke, but as I experienced with my Dad, heart disease can be progressive and result in chronic and long term complications. It can start out as a little higher blood pressure and/or slightly elevated cholesterol, but then progress into clogged arteries, atrial fibrillation or congestive heart failure and cause years of doctor and hospital visits and a diminishing quality of life. 

Although this information is tough to hear, the good news is that we can take control of our own health and risk for heart disease by making lifestyle choices that support a healthy heart. Those early signs of high blood pressure or high cholesterol are the perfect opportunity to take action and make changes that can improve our health and avoid complications down the road. 

What and how we eat and how much we move are two lifestyle choices that can have an enormous impact on heart health. We know that having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes all are conditions that increase our risk for heart disease, and all can be positively influenced by making healthier choices in our diet and moving more. 

Diet and food advice can be overwhelming. You hear something from one expert today and then hear the opposite tomorrow. To be honest, at times, I feel this way too, and it's my job and passion to weed through the abundance of information to find out the facts. It is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of advice and information rather than focusing on the bigger picture, which often leads to us just throwing in the towel and making no changes at all to improve our health. 

Instead I think the big picture is where it's at. When you step back and look at what we know are the healthiest ways of eating, to support both heart health as well as helping prevent other chronic diseases, certain similarities are seen across the board. We know that a whole-food, plant-based diet is the best diet to follow for improving health. That is one fact that no one can argue. But, what does that look like? 

Whole foods means foods closer to their natural state versus from a factory and in a box or bag. When I say plant-based I don't necessarily mean vegetarian or vegan, but instead just more plants. In our all-or-nothing thinking society it is our temptation to always take eating and diet to extremes. Terms like eating clean conjure the notion of this perfect way of eating that isn't necessary and usually doesn't last long term. Maybe vegetarianism is for you, maybe it isn't, but it's not black or white. There is room for individualizing the way you eat to both be healthy…or healthier…and fit with your lifestyle. Any movement towards more plants can improve your health. 

A good way to assess how your doing is to look at your grocery cart when you are headed to the check out line. What do you see? Is it mostly whole, real food from its most natural state and does it include a variety of plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains? Or is it mostly processed, packaged foods, and little whole-foods? 

Here is a list of 5 whole-food, plant-based foods to include in your grocery cart often:

1. Beans. Including all types of beans – black, pinto, garbanzo, etc.- as well as soybeans (edamame), split peas, and lentils. Many of us rarely eat beans, which is a shame. Beans are a great source of healthy carbs, plant-based protein, fiber, as well as folate and potassium. They are associated with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and improving blood sugars and insulin levels. Top salads with them, add some to soup, eat some hummus or make a bean dip, or snack on roasted chickpeas or steamed edamame. So many ways to enjoy them! What's a serving? 1/4 cup of hummus or bean dip, 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1 cup lentils. How much per day? At least 1 serving daily

2. Berries and other fruit. All fruit is healthful, yep even bananas. Berries, though, pack some extra healthiness. All those colors of blues, purples, reds, and pinks represent a different powerful package of antioxidants that act as armor to protect us from disease. Frozen or fresh is great. People often shy away from fruit because they are concerned about sugars, but our bodies respond differently to the sugars wrapped up in the nutrient and fiber rich package of fruit than they do added sugars say in candy bar or donut. Fruit is beneficial and can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. All berries are good- strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries and cherries. Throw them in a smoothie, have them for dessert, top a salad with them, or have them as a snack. Just have them…daily! What's a serving? 1/2 cup fresh or frozen berries, or 1 medium sized piece of fruit, 1 cup cut up fruit. How much per day? 1 serving a day of berries and 3 servings per day of other fruit

3. Greens & Cruciferous Vegetables. It probably isn't a news flash that vegetables are an important part of a heart-healthy diet. Greens and cruciferous vegetables are particularly healthy and deserve a special and frequent  place on your plate. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Greens include arugula, spinach, collards, kale, Swiss card, and turnip greens. If you haven't ever, or in a while, eaten greens I encourage you to revisit them because they are one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Mix them into smoothies, incorporate them into sauces and dressings, sauté some with your scrambled eggs, base your meal around them in a big pretty salad. What's a serving? 1 cup raw, 1/2 cup cooked How much per day? 2 servings per day

4. Nuts. Nuts are another nutrient rich food. They are crunchy and just plain taste good. They are a great source of healthy fats and plant sterols that help lower cholesterol, as well as fiber and protein. They are also rich sources of calcium, magnesium, and potassium which all function in lowering blood pressure, a key risk factor for heart disease. People often ask me which nut is best. All nuts are good and have their own little package of nutrition, but walnuts are particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce heart disease risk. Nuts are great for snacking, and to add crunch to a salad, oatmeal, or yogurt. Whats a serving? 1/4 cup nuts or seeds, 2 Tablespoons nut or seed butter How much per day? 1 serving per day

5. Whole grains. I know, the diet world is really good at pushing the idea that carbs, including whole grains, are bad, but it just simply isn't true. Scientific evidence, hands down, supports that whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of not only heart disease, but also type 2 diabetes, obesity, and stroke. It is easier than ever to eat more whole grains. There is an abundance of options outside of just switching to whole wheat bread. You might try one of the lesser eaten whole grains like freekah, amaranth, millet, or teff or if that's too adventurous just try incorporating more oats, 100% whole wheat pasta, brown rice, or even popcorn – it's a whole grain too. There are even quick-cooking one to two minute whole grain pouches and bowls now available. It really couldn't be easier. What's a serving? 1/2 cup oatmeal, pasta, or cooked grains, 1 tortilla or slice of bread, 1/2 a bagel or English muffin, 3 cups popped popcorn How much per day? 3 servings per day (aim for at least half of your grain servings per day to be whole grains)

So there you have it, 5 foods to include more of to improve your heart health. Isn't it better to think about all the foods we need more of to improve our health instead of focusing on what we shouldn't or can't have? Which one of the foods listed here could you include a little more of in your day to day meals?

Don't forget about the importance of moving regularly for heart health. Any amount of movement is beneficial when it comes to heart health. The best kind of activity is the one you will stick with and do consistently. What's a serving? 90 minutes of moderately intense activity like biking, dancing, brisk walking, yoga, water aerobics, doubles tennis, or housework OR 30-40 minutes of vigorous activity like swimming laps, jogging, singles tennis, or running. How much per day? Daily!

There are so many small things we can do to protect ourselves from developing heart disease and the complications that are associated with it. Incorporating more whole foods and more plants in whatever way you can is a step in the right direction.

Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili

This is a delicious plant based chili option that comes together in one pot. If you like it spicier you can add another chipotle pepper. This would be a great recipe to meal prep on a Sunday and have on hand throughout the week. It gets even better by day two or three. Freeze any extras to have an already prepared lunch or dinner on hand when you need it.

1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons chili powder
1 Tablespoon cumin
1 chipotle in adobo seasoning, chopped (canned and found in the International aisle at Publix)
1/2 teaspoon salt1 32-ounce container of vegetable broth
1 cup water
2 26.5-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 28-ounce can petite diced tomatoes
Juice of 2 limes(about 3 Tablespoons)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Sliced avocado and sour cream

1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. 
2. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, chipotle and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes. Add vegetable broth and water and bring to a simmer. 
3. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potato is tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
4. Add beans, diced tomatoes, and lime juice, bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.
5. Serve topped with a few avocado sliced, a dollop of sour cream, and some blue corn chips.

Serving Size: about 2 cups

Nutrition Information per serving:335 calories   8 g fat   2 g saturated fat   585 mg sodium   60 g carbohydrates   11 g fiber   10 g protein 

Thai Red Curry

We often associate Thai food with being super spicy, but the beauty of cooking it at home is you control the heat. This recipe is mild, but you could top yours with sriracha or crushed red pepper if you like a little more heat. I used veggies that I love, but switch them out for something else if there are any you don't care for. We used shrimp that I got Southern Seafood to steam up for me, but chicken or tofu would work great too. Just season and throw it in your pan first and remove it to a plate before adding onion and other vegetables.

2 teaspoons canola oil1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 cup carrots (I used Publix Greenwise carrot chips)
1 green pepper, sliced into strips
1 red pepper, sliced into strips
cup mushrooms, rinsed and sliced
2 cups broccoli florets
2-3 Tablespoons red curry paste (I used Thai Kitchen brand red curry paste, found at Publix)
1 13.5-ounce can Lite coconut milk
1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined, and steamed with a little Old Bay seasoning
3 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, rinsed and chopped
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

1. Heat canola oil in a wok or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and a sprinkle of salt and cook, stirring often, until the onion has softened and is turning translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, while stirring continuously. 
2. Add in carrots, peppers, mushrooms, and broccoli. Cook until fork-tender, about 3 to 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Stir in red curry paste until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
4. Stir in coconut milk. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until reduced and thickened, about 5 minutes.
5. Stir in shrimp (or other cooked protein) and let simmer about 3 minutes.
6. Remove from heat; stir in cilantro and lime juice; season with salt and pepper, to taste.
7. Serve immediately over 1/2 cup brown Jasmine or Basmati rice.

Serving size: 1 1/2 cups

Nutrition Information:247 Calories   9.4 g Fat   4.8 g Saturated Fat   584 mg sodium   18 g Carbohydrates   5 g 3 g Fiber   24 g Protein