By Nicole Harkin, MD, FACC
In honor of Heart Health Month, I’m so excited to chat heart-healthy eating tips with you! It may seem strange to think about heart health and your kiddos, but unfortunately, heart disease isn’t just for older people. Research has demonstrated that the beginnings of heart and vascular disease occur in our 20s. Almost half of all heart attacks and strokes occur in Americans aged 45 to 64 years of age. Also, rates of obesity and diabetes are on the rise in children.
But it’s not all doom and gloom! In fact, 80% of chronic disease is preventable. And at the cornerstone of this is hands down, diet. The choices we make now matter and can dramatically impact our chance of developing heart disease in the future! It’s so empowering to work together as a family to create a dietary game plan that fuels our bodies so we can live longer, be healthier, and feel better.
We know from a wealth of scientific research that eating more plants - vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans), whole grains, nuts, and seeds - reduces our risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as many other chronic diseases. Everyone can stand to increase their intake of plants because they contain tons of fiber (vital for our gut health and blood sugar control) as well as vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, polyphenols, and antioxidants you can’t get anywhere else. It doesn’t mean you have to go completely whole food, plant-based to reap these benefits, but the more steps you and your family make toward consuming a more plant predominant diet, the better. It also just so happens that eating more plants happens to be very good for our planet (and the animals who live on it!). Win-win.
But how to do this practically? First and foremost, my motto - progress over perfection. Things get crazy, and not every day will be an Instagram worthy meal, and that is just fine. I’ve got three kiddos aged 11 months, 3.5 years, and 6 years, so I’m right there with you. Do your best to set yourself up for success, and when it doesn’t happen, give yourself grace and then keep on keeping on!
Here are some of my top #doctormom hacks for getting more plants into my family's mouths:
1. Start with 1 or 2 meatless meals a week
Unless you’re the rare type who likes to go all in at once, I suggest starting slow and incorporating 1 or 2 meatless meals per week. If you’ve already got Meatless Monday down, then I challenge you to add a second or third completely meat-free meal in. Going slow can also help beat bloat that can accompany too quick of an increase in fiber intake.
2. Your freezer is your friend!
Frozen veggies are just as nutritious as fresh! I always have tons of frozen veggies on hand for quick meals (think “fried” rice or veggie loaded pasta). Frozen fruit (and veggies like zucchini!) are a must have for smoothies, and a great way to get in lots of fruits and veggies into those picky kids. Double your soup recipes and freeze the other half for another night.
3. Modify your favorite dish
Modify some of your favorite meals with all veggie ingredients - either simply eliminate the meat, or substitute a plant-based alternative. One of my favorite substitutions is using lentils in place of ground beef for my dad’s lentil bolognese. Mushrooms, eggplant, lentils, and miso are good secret ingredients for satiety and/or umami flavor.
4. Focus on fitting in more plants, rather than taking things away
Approach each meal as an opportunity to nourish your body with more fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and minerals. For some, shifting your mindset to focus on what you are adding rather than eliminating can be immensely helpful. Even if you’re having meat at a meal, limit that portion to 1/4 of the plate and crowd it out with plants. Try to have the meat be the sideshow, rather than the main attraction.
5. Stock your pantry with all the basics
Shelf stable, healthy plant-based foods are great to have on hand for quick meals. Must haves include: oats, canned beans, lentils, whole grain or bean pastas, all the seeds and nuts (soaked, raw cashews make the most amazing dips and dressings!) and nut butters. Also, think outside the box, like olives, artichokes, or sun-dried tomatoes (just look for BPA-free packaging) to elevate salads and other dishes.
Nicole Harkin, MD, FACC, is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Cardiology, Echocardiography, Nuclear Cardiology, and Clinical Lipidology. She completed medical school at Boston University School of Medicine, internal medicine residency at Columbia University, and cardiology fellowship at New York University. Dr. Harkin recently moved to San Francisco, CA with her family and founded Whole Heart Cardiology, a preventive telecardiology practice with the mission of providing patient-centered cardiac care, merging evidence-based lifestyle and precision medicine.
She takes pride in helping patients achieve their goals, feel better, and thrive. When not doctoring, she spends the majority of her time with her three young children. She also enjoys cooking plant-based meals, yoga, Peloton-ing, hiking, and (under normal circumstances) traveling.
Check out this blog post for the rest of my favorite heart healthy, plant-eating ideas, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter. I also share a lot of recipes, science, and other tips on Instagram. Heart healthy eating can be fun, easy, and enjoyable for the whole family!