February is American Heart Month, raising awareness about heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and woman: 1 out of 4 deaths (1)! Heart disease includes conditions such as atherosclerosis (when arteries become clogged due to plaque build-up) that can result in coronary artery disease and ultimately cause heart attacks, heart failure and strokes by obstructing the flow of oxygen and blood to the rest of your body (1,2).
What causes plaque build up? It’s mainly low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL aka ‘bad’ cholesterol) mixed with fat, calcium and other miscellaneous materials found in your blood (1,3,4). LDL cholesterol is found in animal food sources such as meat and whole milk dairy. Many processed foods, especially commercially produced baked goods, that contain trans fats from hydrogenated oils or shortening are also high in LDL cholesterol.
The good news is that maintaining healthy nutrition habits can help prevent heart disease.
A heart healthy diet includes:
Limiting: saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt/sodium, alcohol
Incorporating: fruits, vegetables, whole grains (i.e. eat your fiber!)
Unfortunately, many traditional baking recipes use butter, which is no doubt a fantastic tool in adding texture and flavor to baked goods but alas a major dietary source of ‘bad’ cholesterol and saturated fat. Simply put each Tablespoon of butter is loaded with fat (11g), saturated fat (7g), cholesterol (30mg), salt (95mg) and very high in calories (100 kcals) (5).
I remember at my first post-college restaurant job we had THE best granola on the breakfast menu and we employees definitely took advantage of our endless access to it. But when I started working in the kitchen and had to make it for the first time, I nearly fainted learning that the recipe called for 4 pounds of butter. Granted we were mass-producing this tasty treat, but still!! Granola is one of those tricky food items because us dietitians keep telling you to eat more whole grains (which oats surely are) because fiber helps lower cholesterol levels, but typical granola is usually coated in butter and sugar (negating oats' benefits) and mixed with other nutrient dense foods, such as dried fruits and nuts. Not heart healthy!
That said, I do love granola for it’s delightful taste and texture from oats, fruits and nuts but since it is very high in calories per serving, it should only be used in small amounts, such as a topping to some nonfat Greek yogurt or low-fat ice cream, and not eaten like regular cold cereal. Granola is also easy to make at home where you can control the ingredients and lower the fat, sugar and calorie content per serving, making it a healthier food in your diet and for your body. Recently, I was reading my Real Simple magazine (love Martha!) and saw a recipe for Applesauce Granola. I didn’t make her recipe (it includes butter), but I did steal her applesauce addition (think: natural sweetener) to create this Tropical Ginger Applesauce Granola. It’s delicious granola but with much less fat, no added refined sugar, and packed with whole grains, fiber, healthy fats and protein. Now that is heart healthy!
Tropical Ginger Applesauce Granola
(adapted from Real Simple)
Combine the oats, cashews, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, coconut and ginger together in a bowl. Add applesauce and maple syrup and toss until fully coated.
Spread oat mix evenly on a baking sheet (I line mine with a Silpat).
Bake ~60-80 minutes @ 275*F, stirring the oats every 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
Yields: 2 pints
This year, I've just fallen so in love with pomegranates (maybe it's because they remind me of one of my best friends who introduced me to the fruit and who sadly for me is temporarily living overseas). I keep using the arils in my smoothies and to top my yogurt, oatmeal or salads, but I really wanted to try them differently - more of a dessert way. So, I broke out the mini muffin tins, melted down some dark chocolate, and began layering chocolate, almonds, coconut and pomegranates until the tins were leveled off. After they chilled, I popped them out, took a bite, and WOW!!!
Each bite just bursts with fresh and sweet goodness! These little taste satisfying, stress reducing homemade treats are full of antioxidants, flavanols, protein, fiber, 'healthy fats,' and believe it or not may even help reduce the risk of heart disease. But while healthier than a store bought processed candy bar, always remember: moderation is key and a little goes a long way!!
Chocolate Pomegranate Coconut Almond Cups
Start with a layer of chocolate and alternate the ingredients until the tins are leveled off. Chill at least 1 hour. Pop out of molds and enjoy! :D
Yields: 20 mini cups