Harvard Heart Letter

Home cooking for better heart health

Preparing your own plant-based meals — focused on beans, grains, and veggies — is easier than you think.

Eating more plant-based foods has many advantages, especially for your heart. But even with the best of intentions, many people find the transition to plant-centric meals a little daunting. Take for instance the daily dilemma of deciding what’s for dinner. Where do you even begin?

Instead of trying to cook an entire vegetarian meal from scratch, start with one small step and build from there, says Dr. Rani Polak, founding director of the Culinary Healthcare Education Fundamentals (CHEF) Coaching program at Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine (see “What is lifestyle medicine?”).

“For example, buy some canned beans. You can then make a simple bean salad with a little olive oil and lemon juice. Or if you have a favorite recipe for beef stew, try swapping in beans for some of the meat,” he says.

A trained chef, Dr. Polak is committed to encouraging people to cook at home rather than relying on restaurant or processed food. “With home-cooked meals, people tend to eat smaller portions, fewer calories, and less fat, salt, and sugar,” he says. Research suggests that people who eat more home-cooked meals tend to weigh less and have healthier cholesterol and blood sugar values compared with people who eat out frequently.

Still, people often feel they don’t have the time or the skills to prepare healthy food. For them, Dr. Polak has an array of tips. They’re organized below under the three food categories that form the basis of a plant-focused diet: legumes, whole grains, and vegetables.

What is lifestyle medicine?

Two common habits — unhealthy eating and physical inactivity — are major drivers of disease, death, and the rise in health care costs. Cardiovascular disease is a prime example: the estimated annual cost in this country is $555 billion and growing. Lifestyle medicine refers to practices that aim to reverse this trend, using evidence-based strategies to help people adopt and sustain behaviors that can improve their health and quality of life.

Founded in 2007, the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital trains health care professionals and creates resources for patients, including a curated list of nutrition information, kitchen organization, meal planning, and recipes (see www.health.harvard.edu/ccr).

Legumes

Botanically speaking, legumes are the edible seeds from pods you can split in half. Familiar examples include the wide array of beans — black, fava, garbanzo, kidney, and pinto, to name just a few. Lentils, peas, and peanuts are also legumes.

Nutrition-wise, legumes are hard to beat. They’re a good source of protein, starch, fiber, and other nutrients, including iron, zinc, and folate. They don’t contain any unhealthy saturated fat. Plus, they’re inexpensive and widely available, they can be stored for long periods—and they’re easy to prepare.

If you use canned beans, choose salt-free versions when possible, or rinse them before using, which can remove about a third of the added sodium. Cooking dried beans is simple, and “batch cooking” a large amount at a time is the way to go, says Dr. Polak. Do this once or twice a week, so you always have some beans handy. “If you come home at 6 p.m., tired from a busy day, it’s good to have a ready-to-use source of protein such as beans available,” he says.

Whole grains

Whole grains are seeds or kernels that contain key nutrients such as protein, B vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and unsaturated fats. All whole grains — such as barley, rye, and wheat — are also excellent sources of fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and control blood sugar. Some popular examples you’re likely to find in supermarkets include cracked wheat (bulgur), brown rice, and steel-cut oats or oatmeal. Some stores also sell more exotic whole grains, such as amaranth, farro, and millet. If you don’t live near a well-stocked supermarket, ordering online is a good option.

As with legumes, whole grains are easy to cook, especially bulgur, another of Dr. Polak’s favorites. Just add equal parts of boiling water and medium-coarse bulgur to a bowl, stir, and cover with a plate for five minutes. For brown rice and other grains that take longer to cook, use the batch cooking method. Allow the cooked grain to cool completely before storing in tightly sealed containers in the freezer.

Vegetables

Few Americans eat the recommended two to two-and-a-half cups of vegetables per day. The reasons for that shortfall likely vary, but shopping-related issues are often to blame. Even if you pick up plenty of produce at the store, sometimes it spoils before you get around to using it. Try these tips:

  • If you shop weekly, use tender produce such as salad greens and spinach early in the week; save harder vegetables such as broccoli and carrots for later.
  • Buy frozen vegetables, which are just as nutritious as fresh.
  • Choose pre-cut vegetables, like butternut squash, to save time and effort.

Also, try using vegetables in novel ways, such as making a simple sauce of roasted, pureed cauliflower, or a salad of very thin slices of raw pumpkin or beets dressed with vinaigrette.

Putting it all together

Dr. Polak’s simple formula for a filling, nutrient-packed main dish is to combine a legume, a cooked whole grain, and chopped vegetables, which can be raw, steamed, sautéed, or roasted. There are endless variations, including warm or cold versions, to which you can also add dried or fresh fruit, spices, and fresh herbs. One of Dr. Polak’s standbys uses orange lentils, which don’t require any soaking and cook in just five minutes. For that and other recipes, see the American College of Preventive Medicine’s recipes and instructional videos (www.acpm.org/page/culinarymedicine).

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