February is National Heart Month. And since we create recipes all year long that are great for your heart health, we decided to gather up some of our top 10 favorites for you to specifically try this month. But first, let’s talk about why we label a recipe as “heart-healthy”. This usually means that it will support low cholesterol and blood pressure levels, since elevated levels of one or both of these are risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. So, what dietary components help with keeping these levels low?
Building a Heart-Healthy Meal
These are the top things we look for in a “heart-healthy” recipe:
Source of Soluble Fiber
This type of fiber is found on the inside (or fleshy portion) of many vegetables and fruits, as well as in oats, barley, legumes, ground flax seed, and more. Soluble fiber contributes to heart health in three ways. One is that it acts like a vacuum, cleaning up the LDL-cholesterol in our blood stream. Higher LDL-cholesterol levels have a direct link to increased risk of blockages in our blood vessels and in turn, heart attacks and strokes. The second is that it has been shown to help reduce blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure is also a risk factor for heart disease. And the third way is that fiber helps us to stay fuller longer after a meal. Because of this, a higher fiber diet has been linked to better weight control, and healthier body weight is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, as well as Type 2 Diabetes and several forms of cancer.
Source of Essential Fatty Acids (Including Omega 3 Fatty Acids)
There are two types of omega 3 fatty acids in foods. The ones from plant sources, known as alpha linolenic acid, can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body. We can also get EPA and DHA directly from fatty fish, omega 3 eggs, breast milk, and other animal-based sources. While EPA and DHA are both incredibly useful in the body, it is EPA that stands out in helping to guard against heart disease. The body makes hormone-like compounds called eicoisinoids from EPA and these have several special and important roles in the body. When thinking about heart health, the two that stand out are their anti-inflammatory properties and ability to help lower blood pressure.
Rich in Vitamin C, Beta Carotene, Vitamin E, & Selenium
These are all antioxidants that contribute to heart health. They do this by reducing free radical formation or effect. Tomatoes, Bell Peppers, citrus fruits, and berries are rich in vitamin C. Pumpkin, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and kale are great sources of beta carotene. Nuts, seeds, and oils are wonderful sources of vitamin E. And selenium is found in a variety of veggies and fruits that have been grown in selenium-rich soil.
Source of Folate
Folate is the version of vitamin B9 that is found in foods (folic acid is the synthetic version). Folate plays a key role in metabolizing (or breaking down) a compound in our body called homocysteine. This is significant in heart health because if homocysteine levels get too high, it can increase one’s risk of heart disease. Sources of dietary folate include leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), asparagus, avocados, broccoli, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, and oranges.
Low in Saturated/Trans-Fat
While I prefer to focus on tips for foods and nutrients that we can add to our diet to support health, it is also important to acknowledge that some things need to be limited. Saturated and trans-fats increase the LDL cholesterol in our bodies, and this has a direct link to heart disease. So, by choosing foods lower in these types of fats, we can support our heart in a wonderful way. Ideas for this are smaller portion sizes of animal-based proteins, replacing beef with poultry or fish, replacing half the animal protein in a recipe with a plant-based protein or vegetables, trying egg whites, and choosing olive oil or avocado oil over butter.
Heart-Healthy Recipe Inspiration
Okay, so how can we take this science and put it into action in everyday life?
Here are my top 10 suggestions for recipes that incorporate one or more of these heart-healthy meal elements!
- Feta Bruschetta Chicken
- Veggie-Loaded Soups
- Chicken & White Bean Chili
- Chicken Salad Lettuce Wraps
- Fresh Guacamole
- Tex Mex Egg White Bites
- Cucumber Hummus Bites
- Energy Boosting Buddha Bowls
- Salmon with Roasted Tomatoes & Asparagus
- Shrimp Tacos
Now the final question is: which will you make first?!