This past summer, my always-healthy former marathon-running brother-in-law was admitted to the hospital as a result of a racing heart rate that had gone on too long (a simplified explanation of a serious issue). What we found out was he had a condition called cardiogenic shock. Fortunately, through the great work of medical intervention, he recovered and lives to tell another pun we can all embrace with more appreciative groans. As the youngest in a large family, I have known him since he met my sister in college and I was a little kid afraid of thunderstorms and those flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (though those monkeys still creep me out), so the thought of any other outcome than recovery was unimaginable.
It seems most everyone knows someone who has a heart-health issue or is keenly aware of working toward keeping heart healthy. Since February is American Heart Month, it’s a great time to raise awareness for what needs to be a year-round effort. As my brother-in-law continued his recovery at home, my sister, who already cooked very healthy meals, worked on modifying recipes to make them more heart healthy, particularly by lowering the sodium. Since sodium can cause water retention, which then puts stress on the heart, a low sodium diet is especially important for someone recovering from a heart crisis or for those who simply want to prevent health issues in the future.
A healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. It sounds easy enough—just eat healthy and exercise. But when faced with making choices in your daily routine to either select or avoid certain foods, some practical pointers can make all the difference. That’s where the experts who work with the association can help.
In general, you are supposed to use up at least as many calories as you take in and eat a variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups—and less of the nutrient-poor foods. Replacing bad fats (saturated and trans) with healthier fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) is better for your heart. Also watch overdoing sodium intake. Intellectually we know all this, but here are some practical pointers to put some of those basics into action as well as a heart-healthy recipe to try for lunch or dinner.
Cut Back on Salt Without the Cravings
In addition to making healthy food choices, the amount of sodium in or on them is important. The daily amount of sodium recommended by the American Heart Association is 1,500 mg for most adults, yet many consume more than double that. For an easy, simple change in the snack department, I discovered that the 50 percent less sodium potato chips I tried at my sister's house were plenty satisfying, so I now add those to the grocery cart. (Even the kids like them!)
Devin Alexander, chef for NBC’s The Biggest Loser and author, lends her voice on topics such as this for the association. “It’s no mystery that salt can help boost a dish from average to amazing and can give your potato a little zing,” she says, “but it can also slowly spike your blood pressure and put stress on your heart. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to cut back on salt without sacrificing that ‘crave’ factor.”
Alexander says that depending on where you add salt in a dish, you need less to experience the same flavor sensation. “For instance, when I make my Sweet Potato No Skins from the Biggest Loser Quick and Easy Cookbook, I salt only the bottom of the potato rounds. Because the salt will hit your tongue directly, it will have a stronger flavor than if you divided the salt between the tops and the bottoms.”
She also suggests buying salt-free seasoning blends and adding just a touch of salt so you can control the amount. Also try sea salt. On average, people tend to use less sea salt versus table salt because the larger flakes allow for space to be caught in the teaspoon. Rely on herbs rather than salt to season vegetables and leaner meats—cumin and cayenne will add smokiness and zing, while fresh basil packs a punch. If you like a little heat, red pepper flakes can really liven things up. Plus, citrus can be an amazing aid in jazzing up your meats and vegetables, while limes are great for Mexican fare.
When we make resolutions to eat better, hit the gym, etc., we often try to go all out and therefore, get burnt out, says Alexander. Habits take some time to change. Start scaling back your salt intake a little at a time. Once your body is used to less, scale back a little more. Pretty soon the amount of salt you used to put on your vegetables will seem unnecessary.
Annessa Chumbley, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Heart Association Healthy For Good offers these practical pointers:
• Half-cup Habit: Add 1/2 cup of any kind of bean or lentil once a day to bump up the protein, fiber, and nutrients. It’s easy to rinse and add beans or lentils to a salad; stir into a soup, stew or stir-fry; or add as a side.
• Add Color: Adding even one serving of color in the form of fruits or vegetables each day is a great way to start building a healthier body. It’s often more motivating to focus on what you can “add” to your plate rather than what you should leave out.
• Insta Salad: Keep a “salad bar” in your refrigerator for quick, easy, and healthful lunches made in a pinch. The trick is to keep them in clear containers so you know what you have on hand and remember to use them. Excellent ideas are: sliced bell peppers, chopped English cucumbers, black beans, hardboiled eggs, fresh cauliflower florets, shredded chicken, chopped tomatoes, and feta cheese.
• Prep a Protein: At the beginning of the week prepare hardboiled and shelled eggs, shredded crockpot chicken, batch-cooked extra-lean ground beef, or a pot full of quinoa that you can easily and quickly pair with plants to help you eat smart on the go.
• Spice it Up: A new study found that people who enjoy spicy foods appear to eat less salt and have lower blood pressure.
Chipotle Chicken Bowls with Cilantro-Lime Quinoa
Makes 4 Servings | Recipe courtesy of the American Heart Association
This makes for a substantial dinner or even an easily transported work lunch. Also note that the chicken can be marinated for up to 24 hours.
For the Cilantro-Lime Quinoa
11/2 cups water
3/4 cup quinoa
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 limes, zested and juiced
11/2 cups chopped, fresh cilantro
For the Chicken and Bowl
2 tablespoons canola oil (divided)
1 minced chipotle pepper (+ 3 tablespoons adobo sauce from a can of chipotles in adobo)
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound boneless, skinless, thinly sliced chicken breast
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 (5-ounce) packaged spinach, spring greens, or arugula
1 pint cherry tomatoes (halved if desired)
1 avocado (peeled, diced)
1 cup packaged, shredded carrots (or 2 large carrots, shredded)
1 cup sliced radishes
2 scallions or green onions (finely chopped)
1. For the Cilantro-Lime Quinoa: In a medium heavy-duty pot, add water, quinoa, and salt. Bring to a boil; cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until quinoa absorbs all the liquid, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Into the quinoa, stir in the zest and juice of 2 limes and chopped cilantro.
3. For the Chicken and Bowl: Into a large zip-top bag, add marinade ingredients: 2 tablespoons canola oil, minced chipotle pepper, adobe sauce, honey, salt, and pepper. Add chicken breasts into the bag, making sure the chicken is well coated with marinade. Let sit for 10 minutes (make the quinoa as you wait) or place chicken in the refrigerator to marinate for up to 24 hours.
4. In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, warm remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add chicken breasts and marinade liquid, using tongs to frequently turn the chicken breasts to be coated in marinade. Sauté until chicken is fully cooked, around 4 to 6 minutes depending on thickness. Remove from heat. When chicken has cooled slightly, transfer chicken to cutting board to chop into bite-size pieces. Then, transfer remaining liquid from pan into a small bowl; stir vinegar into the liquid to use as a dressing.
5. To assemble, add the greens into the bottom of each bowl. Divide quinoa and chicken among each bowl, along with tomatoes, avocado, carrots, radishes, and scallions. Drizzle with the dressing and serve.
Nutrition info (per serving) Chipotle Chicken Bowls w. Quinoa: CALORIES 480; FAT 21g (sat. 3g); CHOL 73mg; SODIUM 559mg; CARB 44g; FIBER 10g; PROTEIN 32g