health as it happens

Creating a Recipe for Heart Health - Memphis Magazine

Anyone who knows us as the duo behind The Chubby Vegetarian and sees us on Instagram plucking a perfectly cooked pizza from the oven or harvesting pounds of vegetables from our various garden patches may not realize that we often struggle to get into and maintain heart-healthy shape. A restart was in order this season!

First we turned to Erin Dragutsky and Kristi Edwards, registered dietitians/nutritionists at 901 Nutrition, for a foundation of knowledge about heart health; they’d already been instrumental consultants in our understanding of nutrition when we wrote Low-Carb Vegetarian Cookbook, our most health-conscious work to date. They emailed us their take: “Heart health is all-encompassing, meaning your heart cares about what you eat, how you move, how you manage stress, how much sleep you get, what your family history is, and more.

That makes sense; so what’s a good first step in the journey? “If we were to choose just one thing to focus on, it would be to increase fiber intake,” Dragutsky and Edwards advise. “Most Americans do not consume adequate fiber daily, as the minimum daily requirement for an adult is 25 grams. We encourage whole-food sources of fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as these foods help to boost antioxidant levels, reduce cholesterol, and improve gut function, all of which aid in heart health.”

“Heart health is all-encompassing, meaning your heart cares about what you eat, how you move, how you manage stress, how much sleep you get, what your family history is, and more.” — Erin Dragutsky and Kristi Edwards, 901 Nutrition

You know we’re also going to sing the praises of fiber and of eating your vegetables and legumes, and we try to make this both fun and appealing with our recipes. A good approach to get to know which vegetables you like and how you like them prepared is to select a meal or two during the week and experiment. Just serve smaller portions of traditional protein and heaping helpings of your new vegetable masterpieces. We’ll give you a head start here with recipes selected from Vegetarian Cooking for Two that we modified slightly to be more heart-healthy. For those who are looking to reduce their sodium intake further or want to avoid it entirely, using herbs, spices, and Mrs. Dash seasonings for flavor are viable options.

A good visual tip when you’re grocery shopping is to add colorful fruits and vegetables to your basket so that your meals have variety and an array of good nutrition. Later at home, spend a few minutes checking out how other folks have prepared their produce. Out of ideas just the other day, we learned a lot by searching “how to make zucchini taste good.” In addition, we keep a big fruit bowl that was a wedding gift on our kitchen countertop, and we fill it with seasonal fruits and vegetables so that we see them and remember to use them.

Sometimes we even plan a meal based on color, like a mango smoothie bowl with pineapple, bananas, orange slices, and macadamia nuts — because it’s fun, and also because it helps if something that’s good for you happens to look nice, too.

While we only develop plant-based recipes, that’s by no means a prerequisite when focusing on heart health. Being a vegetarian or consuming a diet with a variety of vegetables are commendable steps, but not silver bullets. For example, sodium can be a hidden hazard in any diet. The American Heart Association recommends adults stay below 2300 mg of sodium per day. It was a revelation for us to plan meals containing less than 500 mg of sodium per serving, so that our days would stay well below 2300 mg, and then to work toward their further recommendation of consuming under 1500 mg of sodium a day.

Checking food labels is a good habit; choosing lower-sodium ketchup, soy sauce, and cans of beans has been helpful in reducing our intake as well, because surprisingly, it’s not the added salt at the table that’s usually the main culprit of too much sodium in one’s diet.

Carolyn Nichols, nutrition education coordinator for the Church Health Center, advises getting in the habit of cooking at home and keeping an eye on portion sizes. “You can control the portions, fat, and salt in all your meals by cooking with heart-healthy ingredients,” she says. “Plan your plates with the proper portion sizes and you will be on the road to improving your heart health.”

Working on portion sizes is a good reminder. We have been doing our best to save half of our once-a-month, special-treat favorite meals from local Vietnamese restaurant Phuong Long or Mayuri Indian Cuisine for lunch the next day. When we’re cooking at home, we even designate one person to be the official “putter-upper” of leftovers to signal that the meal is complete.

When we emailed Hannah Peters, MS, RDN, LDN, and asked what advice she would give to people who want to work on improving their heart health, one recommendation was at the top of her list: increasing physical activity. “It is so easy to live a sedentary lifestyle,” she says. “Physical activity is extremely important for our health, muscle mass, and quality of life. I would encourage individuals to find a form of exercise that they enjoy and make it a point to stick to it weekly.”

Peters continues, “As far as diet goes, in the South, we eat a lot of fried and processed foods. Changing our cooking methods from frying to baking can decrease both the calories and fat of many recipes, which is better for our hearts.”

“You can control the portions, fat, and salt in all your meals by cooking with heart-healthy ingredients.” — Carolyn Nichols, nutrition education coordinator, Church Health Center

Another change we’ve implemented is taking the American Heart Association’s “30 Days of Heart” challenge on This campaign is sponsored by Baptist Memorial Health Care in our region and is summed up as “Thirty healthy steps. One day at a time. Backed by science.” Now, we love it when something as daunting as changing old habits is made easier, and we decided to try the program. Daily challenges are as simple as replacing go-to sugary drinks with water dressed up with fruit. You can download a journal with all of the details and tag the parts of your journey that you want to share on social with #30DaysofHeart. The AHA also features some excellent recipes on their site, and we can’t wait to try them and learn more about this way of cooking.

These discoveries led us to chat with Libby Perry Ridenhour, communications director at the American Heart Association, Mid-South. She mentioned that her dad had recently been doing more plant-based cooking, even introducing the family to jackfruit. He had triple-bypass surgery on March 1, 2021, and had become very motivated to make some remarkable changes in his life and diet.

Would we want to talk with him? Ridenhour asked. Of course.

Hal Perry, owner and artisan of Second Chance Boards and a consultant in corporate learning and supply chain management, is still recovering but is determined to steer his health onto the right track; the education he received about nutrition in his weeks of cardiac rehab was a tremendous help.

“I’ll always be a heart patient,” he states, and he tracks his meals, which now are more plant-based. He’s found ways to make some of his old favorites, like chili, “legal” on the new plan, and he says Memphis restaurants “always have salads and will reduce portion sizes of a dish or put the sauce on the side.” While he may try a little bit of something he misses the taste of when he’s out at a party, he has the freedom and knowledge to compensate for it with additional exercise or vegetables the next day.

His main goal? “I don’t want to get back on that operating table ever again,” he says. He is open about his experience because now, he feels that his health is up to him, and he wants other people to know that change is possible.

“We need to teach our kids to like fruits and vegetables and enjoy a healthy diet because atherosclerosis can start at a very young age.” — Dr. Steven S. Gubin, president of the Stern Cardiovascular Foundation and board member of the American Heart Association

Lastly, Dr. Steven S. Gubin, president of the Stern Cardiovascular Foundation and also president of the American Heart Association board, handed us the key to unlocking what feels like such a mystery: What really is in our control when it comes to heart health? He says to focus on “modifiable risk factors.” These include high blood pressure, stress, diabetes, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle, all of which can be managed, unlike non-modifiable factors such as aging and family history. Knowing what to focus on right now is quite helpful.

There’s much debate about what constitutes a healthy diet these days, and Gubin mentioned two things that stuck with us: “We need to teach our kids to like fruits and vegetables and enjoy a healthy diet because atherosclerosis can start at a very young age.” In addition, Gubin emphasizes that there isn’t one diet for everyone, and that going vegetarian or vegan is not a requirement for heart health. He does view the Mediterranean diet as a good option overall.

Stress, one of the modifiable risk factors, can be managed more easily by getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night and integrating things like yoga into your exercise routine. If you need more in terms of some personalized strategies to manage how you react to stressors in your life, Gubin recommends enlisting the advice of a psychologist to learn more ways to reduce stress.

All in all, we know we personally needed these reminders and ways to stay on track, and we hope you are as inspired as we are by them. Anytime is a good time for a healthy restart, and your heart is sure to thank you for it. We’ll be right here along with you on the path to heart health!

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Warm Acorn Squash Salad

Serves 2 / Prep Time: 10 minutes / Cook Time: 30 minutes

The warm savory flavor from baked squash makes for the perfect salad for fall. You can eat the skin on an acorn squash, so no need to peel. You may also use delicata squash in this recipe.

1 medium acorn squash

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, optional

1/3 cup 0% Greek yogurt

1 medium green onion, sliced

1 medium lime, juiced

2 cups chopped romaine lettuce

1/4 cup chopped toasted cashews

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

2. Slice the stem end off of the acorn squash and then slice the squash in half lengthwise. Using a spoon, scrape out the seeds and discard or compost them.

3. Slice the squash into 1/2-inch slices, like half-moons.

4. Arrange the slices in a single layer on the prepared sheet pan.

5. Drizzle squash with the olive oil and sprinkle with curry powder and salt.

6. Transfer the sheet pan to the oven and cook for 30 minutes, or until the squash is lightly browned and cooked through. Remove from the oven.

7. To make the yogurt dressing, put the yogurt, scallion, lime juice, and honey in a small bowl. Using a fork, mix until combined.

8. Put the romaine lettuce on a serving platter or two plates and arrange the squash on top. Top with the yogurt dressing and cashews.

Confetti Corn Chowder

Serves 2 / Prep Time: 10 minutes / Cook Time: 25 minutes

We like how the red pepper and chives add some contrasting color to the mix so that this corn chowder looks as good as it tastes. This recipe makes the perfect amount for two, but it’s easy to scale up for guests.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small white onion, diced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 chipotle chili from a can, diced (or one seeded, minced jalapeño)

1 cup water

1/2 cup fat-free milk or plant milk

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1-1/2 cups frozen organic corn, divided

1 Yukon Gold potato, diced

1 red pepper, diced

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, optional

black pepper, to taste

fat-free sour cream or 0% Greek yogurt, for serving

chopped chives, for garnish

1. In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers.

2. Add the onion and cook for about 7 minutes, or until translucent and soft.

3. Add the cumin, garlic, and chili and cook for about 1 minute, or until fragrant.

4. In a blender, combine the water, milk, vinegar, and 1 cup of frozen corn. Blend the mixture.

6. Add the mixture to the pot along with the potato and bell pepper.

7. Put the remaining 1/2 cup of corn in a medium pan. Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes, or until kernels are nicely browned. Remove from the heat.

8. Add the corn to the pot.

9. Reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and cook for 15 minutes, or until the potato is tender.

10. Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

11. Garnish with chives and sour cream.

Banana Oat Smoothie Bowls

Serves 2 / Prep Time: 5 minutes / Cook Time: 0 minutes

This healthy, hybrid breakfast combines superfood oats with potassium-packed bananas. It’s the perfect way to perk up your morning routine, especially when the weather is warm. You’ll never get tired of this because it’s infinitely customizable. Just swap out the toppings to suit your mood or use whatever you have on hand.

2 medium bananas, frozen

1/2 cup quick-cooking oats

1-1/2 cups unsweetened fat-free milk or plant milk

1 teaspoon maple syrup

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, optional

◗ Raisins, diced apple, berries, sunflower seeds, nuts, nut butter, chia seeds (to garnish)

1. In a blender, combine the bananas, oats, milk, maple syrup, lemon juice, cinnamon, and salt. Blend until mostly smooth.

2. Divide mixture between two shallow bowls.

3. Garnish with your choice of toppings and serve cold.