After taking care of other people’s hearts all day, cardiologists go home and look after their own. A heart-healthy dinner is a big part of the prescription.
“Most cardiologists do try to practice what they preach,” Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a cardiologist and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, tells TODAY.com.
“We want to stay healthy.”
What people eat for dinner — and breakfast and snacks and lunch — is the single top determinant of heart health, says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist, professor of nutrition and director of the Food is Medicine Institute at Tufts University in Boston.
But dinner is more than just the biggest meal of the day.
“It’s a time for a little bit of peace, rest and contemplation, family time and nourishing yourself both mentally and with the food you’re eating,” Mozaffarian says.
Given what heart doctors know about heart health, what’s for dinner at a cardiologist’s house? Hayes and Mozaffarian share their favorite meals and the principles that guide their food decisions.
Beans and greens
Hayes is a pescatarian — she enjoys fish, but doesn’t cook it at home because her husband, who is also a cardiologist, is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat it.
Much of their diet consists of “beans and greens and tomatoes” prepared in various ways, she says. Since the couple doesn’t eat meat, legumes are a protein-rich staple. Hayes might cook lentils or white beans, then add kale or other greens, tomatoes and a little feta. Her husband likes to bake bread.
“I have a weakness for carbs, so they are usually part of a dinner for me,” Hayes notes. “We do try to make that not the center of our meal and to avoid making it truly simple carbs, meaning just white pasta.”
Another simple dinner might be a gnocchi salad with tomatoes, avocado toast and some greens.
Meals organized around colorful vegetables
Mozaffarian is not a vegetarian, but he and his family plan each dinner around “delicious vegetables” and then consider fish, poultry or occasional red meat as a complement to that.
Salmon tacos are a favorite meal. They’re assembled from stone ground corn tortillas, shredded red cabbage, lime, avocado and grilled salmon, with either plain yogurt or mayonnaise.
“From the low-fat days, there’s this concept that mayonnaise is an unhealthy food,” Mozaffarian says. “It’s very healthy fats and eggs, so mayonnaise is a healthy food.”
Another regular dinner is eggplant stew, which contains grilled eggplants, onions, tomatoes, saffron, lemon juice and grilled chicken. It’s served with yogurt and a small salad of diced cucumber, tomato and red onion dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
His family also likes a fall or winter vegetable soup with red lentils, sautéed onions, zucchini, carrots, chopped spinach, tomato and low-sodium vegetable broth. It can be eaten with yogurt on top and with a small side of sourdough bread.
Extra virgin olive oil everywhere
Both cardiologists say extra virgin olive oil is their main cooking fat. Mozaffarian’s family goes through a liter of olive oil a week, which he says is about average in Mediterranean countries like Greece and Italy. For frying, Mozaffarian uses either avocado or canola oil.
“Using healthy oils liberally and often is also something that’s important for dinner,” he notes.
“The food we make is pretty liberally oiled with olive oil. It’s very Mediterranean,” Hayes says.
She adds basil, oregano and other fresh herbs from her garden to olive oil for dipping bread.
Wine is optional
Hayes enjoys red or white wine with certain foods.
“Gone are the days where we delude ourselves into thinking that wine, red or otherwise, or any alcohol, is really good for us,” she says. “But with moderation, I think it certainly can add to the enjoyment.”
Mozaffarian doesn’t drink alcohol but says an occasional glass of wine once or twice a week is fine for most people.
Dessert can be part of the menu
Hayes rarely eats dessert, but she sometimes likes “just a little something sweet at the end” and will have a couple of peanut M&Ms or a square of dark chocolate.
Mozaffarian almost always has dessert. Favorite options include dark chocolate with 70% cocoa or more, often eaten with nuts. He, his wife and their three children also like to make homemade banana splits with a scoop of gelato or ice cream loaded with fruits and nuts.
He only eats full-fat dairy and considers ice cream healthier than bread.
“Bread is 100% glucose,” Mozaffarian says. “Ice cream, yes, has some sugar, but it also has several different kinds of fatty acids, it has protein, it has several vitamins.”
Heart-healthy dinner tips:
The cardiologists offer more advice to make a dinner that benefits the heart:
Cook at home: “The biggest mistake is getting quick takeout of food from a restaurant rather than doing something at home … because the food cooked in the vast majority of restaurants or in supermarkets is not healthy for you,” Mozaffarian says. He rarely eats food prepared outside the home.
Meal planning is key: Otherwise, it’s tempting to take “shortcuts that often mean more processed foods,” Hayes notes. “You will default to something easy, and that might be convenient food — the frozen pizza or the tater tots — that gets satisfying calories on the table quickly, but that doesn’t serve us in the long term.”
Limit the starch: There’s too much bread and rice in the U.S. food supply, Mozaffarian says. Eating simple carbs is like eating sugar, Hayes adds.
Don’t fear fat: “I tell my patients, ‘You should actually actively be seeking out fat, especially fat from plant sources,’” Mozaffarian notes. “Nuts, avocados, plant oils, fish are loaded with healthy fats, and that’s what most people need more of.”
Watch portion sizes: If Hayes occasionally eats a cheesy lasagna, the portion relative to the vegetables or the salad on her plate will be quite small because enjoying a modest slice is preferable to feeling deprived. She tells patients that if they love cheesecake, eating a low-fat or low-sugar sugar version will leave them unsatisfied and just make them eat more.
“Get the best cheesecake, take a tiny sliver and enjoy each and every bite,” she says.
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