The Secrets of Heart-Smart Cooking

Blogger Cathy Elton dishes on her must-try tips and tricks for creating heart-smart foods that minimize cholesterol, sodium and saturated fat – and yes, there's lasagna.

Heart Smart Cooking

Cathy Elton was 44 when she found out that one of her arteries was 90 percent blocked. Until that moment she was, as she puts it, a “barbecue-lovin’, pie-bakin’ chowhound.” After two stents, she was sent on her way with nutritionists’ advice to start adopting a heart-healthy diet.

Refusing to give up flavorful and satisfying food, Cathy began experimenting with her recipe repertoire and found she had a knack for creating just-as-tasty, better-for-you dishes – and no one could tell they were not laden with saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol. She started her blog,What Would Cathy Eat?, to share her recipes and to “help people realize the connection between what they put in their mouths and their future well-being.”

We asked Cathy to let us in on some her secrets, tips and tricks for adjusting to a heart-healthy lifestyle and creating mouthwatering dishes like Decadent Low-Fat BrowniesVegan Lasagna BechamelOatmeal Pecan Pancakes and Soba Noodle Salad with Avocado and Mango (pictured above).

Heart Smart Cooking

“I think the most important thing is to not think of [heart-healthy eating] as a sacrifice. Challenge yourself to eat healthy food that also has exciting new flavors and is fun to eat.” -  Cathy Elton

When you first discovered you had to make drastic changes to your diet, what were the foods or dishes you immediately knew would be off-limits? What was the biggest sacrifice you feared you'd have to make?

I was a barbecue fanatic, so my thoughts went right to pulled pork. I'd been known to eat my way through North Carolina, but knew I wouldn't have pork sandwiches or barbecued ribs in my future. And that made me very sad. However, I've since developed some great substitutes that give me a bit of that old barbecue thrill – like smoked seitan, which tastes eerily similar to Texas brisket!

How did you educate yourself about heart-healthy alternatives and ways of cooking?

Because I'm a big foodie, many of the standard heart health websites failed me. I had no interest in eating plain chicken breast and steamed broccoli. Vegan food blogs were more useful for me, such as Post Punk Kitchen, Fat Free Vegan, and 101 Cookbooks. And I relied heavily on some great cookbooks like Peter Berley's Modern Vegetarian Kitchen and Myra Kornfeld's Voluptuous Vegan.

Were there any foods or dishes you were relieved to discover you could still have?

I discovered that there are heart-healthy versions of comfort foods like chili, lasagna and apple pie. To create these to my liking, I had to delve into a lot of cooking experiments. And that led to me starting my own food blog.

I notice you have a vegan section on your blog. Had you ever tried to eat vegan before?

No, I hadn't tried before. I'm not officially a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but not being able to eat cheese or butter after finding out about my heart problems naturally pushed me toward vegan cooking. And today, almost everything I eat is vegan by default.

How can those who need to start cooking and eating in a heart-healthy way mentally prepare themselves?

I think the most important thing is to not think of it as a sacrifice. Challenge yourself to eat healthy food that also has exciting new flavors and is fun to eat.

What must-have foods are in your kitchen?

  • Beans are my no.1 food; I eat beans or lentils for one or two meals a day – they provide almost unlimited possibilities, from chili to curries to stews and soups.
  • I'm a big fan of whole grains and am very happy I'm not sensitive to gluten. I eat a lot of quinoa, farro and barley, and have tried to stock to those rather than rice.
  • I love Field Roast vegan sausages, although I caution that they are high in sodium. They're made with seitan rather than soy.
  • The more adept you can get with using herbs and spices, the easier it is to eat heart-healthy. If you have to cut out high-fat dairy and red meat, the last thing you need is to eat plain, boring food. So keep your cooking spicy!