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How to cook (and eat) with heart health in mind

February is Heart Month, and one way to care for your heart is by eating well. Dr. Rahul Jain, Family Physician at Sunnybrook, and Karen Fung, Registered Dietitian at Sunnybrook, share some ways individuals and families can incorporate heart-healthy eating habits into everyday life.

Have fun with cooking

Dr. Jain says one way to encourage Canadians to stick to their healthy eating goals is to remind them that eating nutritious foods doesn’t have to mean bland, boring meals. That’s why the Canadian Cardiovascular Harmonized National Guideline Endeavour (C-CHANGE), of which Dr. Jain is the co-chair, collaborated with a professional chef from Switzerland, Jaroslav Guzanic, to create a teaching video on how to prepare a delicious, heart-healthy meal (according to Canadian nutrition guidelines). In the video— which you can watch above— Jaroslav prepares a vegetarian version of the Moroccan dish tagine.

“The teaching video aligns with Canadian nutrition guidelines on best practices to prevent and manage cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Jain. “But it’s about having fun with the food as well. And to pick up culinary skills. [Cooking] can be a fun activity.”

Dr. Jain and Karen say there are some key things Canadians can do to make meals more heart-healthy:

Look for polyunsaturated fats 

One recommendation for heart-healthy eating is for Canadians to reduce the amount of saturated fats they eat and instead opt for unsaturated fats, which include poly- and mono-unsaturated fats.

“Vegetable oils are excellent: sesame, avocado, sunflower seed oil, canola oil, olive oil,” Karen says. “The exception is coconut, which is high in saturated fats.”

Olive oil is likely the most accessible, but some people might be hesitant to cook with it: Karen says not to worry about that.

“The common misconception is that we can’t cook with olive oil, but we can. We just can’t use it at very high heats like barbecuing,” she says. “If you’re making a stir-fry or frying an egg, you can totally use olive oil.”

In addition, nut, seeds and nut/seed butters as well as avocados are sources of unsaturated fats. For Omega-3 fats, people can eat fish such as salmon, rainbow trout, mackerel. Most white fish does not have significant amounts of Omega-3. Karen recommends fresh, not canned or cured versions.

Up the fibre

“There’s a small percentage of Canadians who meet the fibre requirement on a daily basis,” says Karen. The daily recommendation for fibre intake is at least 25 grams for women and 30 grams for men. Karen says Canadians may benefit from focusing on increasing the amount of soluble fibre in their meals because it’s often overlooked.

Soluble fibre is beneficial for heart health, Karen says, and it can be found in whole grains, oats, barley, lentils, chickpeas and beans. The fibre typically found in fruits and vegetables is known as insoluble fibre.

“We know about fruits and vegetables being a fibre source, but we forget about whole grains and legumes possibly being an even better fibre source,” she says. “Because of the low-carbohydrate fads and trends, people have shied away from whole grains and legumes.”

Both are important, but think about upping the amount of soluble fibre specifically.

Watch the sodium

Hypertension Canada recommends Canadians eat less than 2000 mg of sodium per day, which is equal to one teaspoon of salt. Currently, the average Canadian consumes closer to 2800 mg of sodium per day. Too much sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Dr. Jain says about one in four Canadian adults have high blood pressure, and about 30 per cent of those cases are related to high sodium in the diet.

“Salt attracts and draws water, and if you have more retention of fluid, you have increased blood volume and that results in increased blood pressure,” says Dr. Jain.

Karen says one of the easiest ways to reduce sodium intake is to cook meals at home and limit the use of processed and canned foods such as frozen dinners or canned soups.

“Replace [salt] with other herbs and spices,” says Dr. Jain, adding the cooking video with Jaroslav is a great example of how to use spices and herbs to create flavour without using as much salt. “For example, adding basil and oregano to soups and pasta, or garam masala and cumin to lentil dishes or stews.”

Progress, not perfection

Making small changes will add up, says Karen, so don’t feel as though you have to make sweeping changes to your eating habits immediately.

“It’s about the big picture,” she says.

These are general guidelines, suitable for most Canadians to prevent heart disease, but Dr. Jain says for individuals who have chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart failure, it’s important to speak with your family physician or a dietitian because they can provide specific recommendations for your situation and needs.

About the author

Lindsay Smith