For the 57th year, February is being celebrated as American Heart Month. It reminds us all that we need to take good care of our hearts, because the integrity of the vascular system is central to good health and longevity. Approximately 665,000 Americans die of heart disease every year and, for 50% of them, their first symptom is death. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters once joyfully celebrated the love in their lives on many Valentine’s Days. Unfortunately, no one is exempt from this disease that most often claims lives prematurely.
Since heart disease is primarily related to lifestyle choices, this is a good time for each of us to pause and take a serious look at the way we live. Since the 1950s, the medical community has understood that diet plays a significant role in the development and progression of this disease. More recently, inflammation has been identified as a factor. Consumption of foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol, along with inflammation, causes the buildup of plaque that narrows and hardens arteries. (Dietary cholesterol is still a factor.) This impairs blood flow to all parts of the body, with the only difference being the affected location. In addition to causing heart attacks, plaque accumulation can lead to high blood pressure, strokes, dementia, kidney disease and chronic pain, as well as other diseases.
Cholesterol is only found in animals, so all of the cholesterol and most of the saturated fat come from eating them and their byproducts. For most people, eliminating animal foods causes blood levels of cholesterol and fat (triglycerides) to plummet and inflammation to subside. Research shows that people who have plaque in their arteries (which includes almost everyone — including children) can prevent progression and even reverse their disease by eliminating the main sources of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat: meat, fowl, fish, eggs and dairy (including milk, cream and cheese). Which foods have the potential for opening arteries, reducing inflammation and keeping the body healthy? Those from plant sources: vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds — a whole-food, plant-exclusive eating style (also known as a vegan diet).
Embracing a whole-food, plant-exclusive diet has the potential to prevent and reverse Type 2 diabetes, improve gastrointestinal function, decrease the risk for autoimmune diseases, prevent cancer, decrease pain, optimize kidney function, improve reproductive health, facilitate weight loss and increase energy and vitality. How does this happen? When a person stops eating disease-promoting foods and instead consumes only health-promoting foods, the body begins to heal itself. It comes as no surprise that plant-eaters experience an average of eight more quality years than meat-eaters.
One of the most frequently asked questions about changing to a plant-exclusive diet is, “Where do you get your protein?” While this nutrient is vital to optimal physiological function, it is important to know that virtually all whole, unprocessed plant foods contain protein. Legumes — particularly soybeans — are excellent sources. When consuming a wide variety of whole plant foods at a calorie level that maintains a person’s appropriate weight, there will be adequate but not excessive protein. Currently, in our culture, there is an emphasis on consuming large quantities of protein (mostly by companies who are selling it), and this often results in excessive intake, which can have detrimental health effects, such as impaired kidney function, the development of various cancers and others.
Many of the foods the average person eats are vegan, so to make heart-healthy dietary changes, the focus needs to be directed to finding substitutions for those that are not. Making changes in this manner is an easy way to move from being an omnivore to an herbivore. Here are five easy steps:
- Instead of consuming dairy-type products from animals, try those made from plants — milk, cheese, yogurt, cream and even ice cream-type frozen desserts. You will get the most benefit from those made with soy.
- Instead of consuming chicken eggs, make “tofu scramble” by crumbling a block of standard tofu, adding seasonings and lightly pan-frying. Another alternative is a product called “Just Egg,” which makes delicious omelets. For recipes containing eggs, combine 3 tablespoons of water with 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseeds. This forms a gel that functions similar to eggs in cooking. Oftentimes, eggs can simply be eliminated from the ingredient list.
- Instead of meat, fowl and fish, substitute foods from a wide variety of cooked beans, peas, lentils and their derivatives. Many companies produce meat look-alikes that facilitate the transition to a whole-food, plant-exclusive diet. They have names such as “beefless ground,” “porkless bites,” “chick’n strips,” “fishless filets” and, yes, even “bac’n.” These are usually made with legumes (frequently with the very versatile soybean), vegetables or wheat gluten.
- Instead of meat fat or butter, use unsaturated oils such as canola or plant-based margarines.
- “Veganize” recipes by simply substituting plant ingredients for those that come from animal sources.
The benefits of adopting a whole-food, plant-exclusive diet are significant and immediate. A comment most often heard from new herbivores is “I feel great. I have lost excess weight. My blood values have improved. My only regret is that I didn’t make this change sooner.”
It’s no coincidence that American Heart Month embraces a holiday of love — Valentine’s Day. Love both your physical and emotional heart by adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors. Family and friends who love you (and your heart) will be grateful for being able to experience you with improved health and an extended lifespan.
Here are some quick and easy recipes to assist you in celebrating Vegantine’s Day! They include ingredients that are abundant with health-promoting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients — and, yes, protein and “good” carbs.
Mediterranean Chickpea Stew
Yield: 6 cups
- 1 1/2 cups of onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- ¾ cups if celery, diced
- 2 cups of butternut squash or sweet potatoes (fresh or frozen), cut into bite-sized pieces
- ¾ cups green pepper, diced
- 32 ounces vegetable broth, low-sodium (recommended brand: Better than Bouillon paste)
- 2 cups of cooked or canned chickpeas (drained/rinsed)
- 2 cups of tomatoes, diced
- 1 teaspoon of paprika
- 1 teaspoon of turmeric
- 1 teaspoon of basil
- 1 bay leaf
- A pinch of cinnamon
- A dash of cayenne (optional)
- Salt to taste
- 2 cups of greens, chopped
In a soup pot, sauté the onions, garlic and celery for 5 minutes; add the squash or sweet potatoes and green peppers. Continue sautéing for an additional 5 minutes.
Add the vegetable broth, chickpeas and tomatoes; simmer for 30 minutes. Add seasonings and continue cooking at a low simmer for an additional 15 minutes or until the squash is tender. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed. Add the greens and cook just until wilted.
Serve as a stew or ladle over cooked brown rice or other whole grain.
Strawberry Spinach Salad
Yield: 8 servings
- ¼ cup of slivered almonds
- 1 teaspoon of 100% maple syrup
- 10 ounces of fresh baby spinach, coarse stems removed
- 1-2 cups of fresh strawberries, sliced from stem to blossom end (into heart shapes)
- 2 baby cucumbers, sliced cross-wise
- 1 tablespoon of canola oil
- 3 tablespoons of red wine, raspberry or strawberry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
- 1 green onion, sliced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of agave nectar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of vegan Worcestershire Sauce
- ¼ teaspoon of salt (optional)
In a small skillet, combine the maple syrup and almonds. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until almonds turn slightly brown. Spread on foil to cool and then break apart.
In a large salad bowl, combine the spinach, strawberries and cucumbers (a small cookie cutter can be used to create heart shapes, if desired).
In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the dressing ingredients, and then shake well. Just before serving, drizzle the dressing over the salad ingredients and toss gently to coat (or serve the dressing separately).
Garnish with the candied almonds. (This can also be plated as an “arranged” salad.)
Creamy Chocolate Dessert
Yield: Four ½ cup servings
- ½-3/4 cups of dark chocolate chips (vegan)
- 1 12-ounce package of firm silken tofu at room temperature (do not use standard tofu)
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract (1/2 teaspoon if using mint extract)
- 1-2 teaspoons of agave nectar or maple syrup to taste
Microwave chocolate chips on full power for 2 minutes; stirring halfway through. The chocolate should be thoroughly melted and very smooth.
Place the room-temperature tofu, flavoring and sweetener into a food processor bowl and process until very smooth. For a whipped cream-type garnish, remove 4 tablespoons of this mixture and reserve. Add melted chocolate chips and process until the mixture is well-blended, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Pour into a serving bowl or four individual dishes and cover. Refrigerate the pudding and topping for at least two hours. Garnish with a dollop of the tofu topping (or use “So Delicious Coco Whip”) and a fresh raspberry.
Carol Throckmorton is a retired clinical dietitian whose 30-year career focused on the prevention, treatment and reversal of cardiovascular disease. She has observed a whole-food, plant-based diet for 27 years. Carol was a founder of the Vegetarian Community of (central) Iowa in 2000 and the Vegan Community of Eastern Iowa in 2018. She serves as a member and past president on the VCEI Board of Directors. The group can be contacted at [email protected]