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If your diet has fallen into a rinse and repeat routine, it might be time to think beyond the chicken and brown rice and shake up your shopping cart. Adding new foods into your daily meals will not only shake your taste buds awake, but also help you load up on a greater diversity of nutrients to support your heart health.
A recent investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that individuals who presented tendencies for food neophobia (or a reluctance to try unfamiliar foods) had overall lower-quality diets and were at a greater risk for certain health conditions like diabetes. And research in the Journal of Nutrition found that people who include a greater variety of healthy foods in their diet had an easier time maintaining a healthy body weight. And just think of the whole new set of culinary possibilities in the kitchen that awaits.
So, it’s time to take your diet off repeat and boost your Insta-game. These fresh picks just might be the best foods you aren’t eating for a healthy heart.
Best new carb: Freekeh
If you’re burned out on brown rice and quinoa, now is the perfect time to give freekeh a try. Freekeh (pronounced, “FREAK-eh”) is green durum wheat that’s harvested before maturity, then roasted over an open fire to impregnate it with a delicious nutty, smoky flavor. In other words, it’s akin to the bacon of the whole grain world. It’s an ancient grain that’s been pivotal in Middle-Eastern cuisines for centuries.
From a nutritional point of view, it’s hard not to be impressed with this whole grain. Quinoa might get all the fanfare, but did you know freekeh has more protein and twice as much fiber? A quarter cup of dry freekeh has 7 grams of protein and 8 grams of dietary fiber, making it a plant-based heavyweight in both departments.
Beyond keeping you regular, scientists in Australia found that higher intakes of fiber might be a key factor in successful aging, which includes the absence of disability, cognitive impairment, and chronic diseases including cancer and heart disease. Fiber, like that found in spades in freekeh, can help improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, not to mention the composition of our microbiome, which might be the big reason why it may have life-prolonging powers. As a surprise, freekeh also delivers the same vision-protecting antioxidant duo lutein and zeaxanthin that’s found in leafy greens.
And if all of those health benefits weren’t enough, freekeh is also a viable source of a handful of essential micronutrients, including immune-boosting zinc and phosphorus, a mineral that has several roles in the body including bone formation.
Where to buy it
Locate freekeh at natural food stores, Middle Eastern grocers, and increasingly with other whole grains in regular grocery stores.
How to eat it
You can cook freekeh much the same way you would make a pot of brown rice – add 1 cup grain to 2½ cups boiling water or broth and simmer until tender and liquid is absorbed. Whole freekeh (uncracked) takes about 45 minutes to prepare, while the cracked variety takes only about 20 minutes to soften.
Once cooked, freekeh can be used in salads, veggie burgers, stir-fries, soups, grain bowl recipes and in replace of rice in dishes like burritos. You can even try using it as a porridge as you would steel-cut oats. One of our favorite recipes? A customizable freekeh bowl.
Best new plant protein: Black (beluga) lentils
Nicknamed after the whale caviar they resemble, these remarkable legumes have a striking jet black skin and are blissfully less earthy-tasting than more common green and brown lentils. And it’s not a stretch to call black lentils nutritional goldmines. They offer high amounts of plant protein and fiber (about 12 and 9 grams in each quarter-cup serving, respectively), along with a range of essential vitamins and minerals including potassium, folate and magnesium – all things that can help keep our hearts beating strong.
A study in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that replacing some animal-based proteins in the diet with plant-based proteins like lentils may reduce the risk of premature death overall and death from different forms of heart disease. As a bonus, black lentils also supply the same type of potent anthocyanin antioxidants that are typically found in dark berries such as blueberries. These are a class of antioxidants that may improve brain functioning.
Another advantage? Black lentils are ready to eat after only 20 minutes in a pot of simmering water.
Where to buy it
Most well-stocked bulk food stores will carry this guise of lentils. If not, there are several online sources.
How to eat it
Since they retain their lens-like shape when cooked and absorb flavors, black beluga lentils are a nutritious addition to salads, grain bowls, stews, chili and soups. Or, use them as a meat-free stuffing for tacos and burritos.
Best new seafood: Sablefish
Sure, salmon and halibut are great catches from the fishmonger, but consider casting your line once in a while for sablefish. This often overlooked swimmer hails from the icy waters of the North Pacific, and it’s blessed with a melt-in-your-mouth buttery flesh that will have you hooked after the first taste.
But most importantly, the pearly-white flesh is extremely rich in mega-healthy omega-3 fats like those found in salmon, mackerel, and sardines. According to data from the USDA, a 3-ounce serving of sablefish delivers about 1.3 grams of omega-3s, and that makes it a food for longevity. A recent study in journal Nature Communications found that people who had greater levels of the same long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in sablefish had a 13% lower risk for all-cause mortality, as well as a lower risk for death due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other causes combined, compared with those with lower levels of these all-star fats. One reason for the health boost is these omega-3 fats appear to help make our red blood cells more resistant, allowing for better heart functioning. Another note-worthy nutritional perk is high levels of selenium, a mineral linked to improved mood.
What’s more, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s lauded conservation program Seafood Watch gives wild-caught sablefish high-water marks for being a sustainable choice due to its well-managed fishery.
Where to buy it
It’s not always easy to find fresh pieces of sablefish, but ask your fishmonger if frozen cuts are available. Sablefish is not the cheapest catch of the day, but sometimes it’s worth splurging for dinner.
How to eat it
Similar to other white-fleshed fish like halibut and tilapia, sablefish filets can be broiled, poached, steamed, seared in a skillet, or cooked on the grill. It’s ready to embrace all sorts of salsas, glazes, marinades, and spice rubs.
Best new fat: Hemp oil
If you already pour extra virgin olive oil over your salad greens, that’s great. But let us make a case for also having a bottle of hemp oil on hand to gussy up your veggies. Made by pressing the heck out of whole hemp seeds to extract their green-hued grease, hemp oil has a fresh, earthy-nutty flavor along with a few notable nutritional benefits.
Namely, it’s a reliable source of the essential omega fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6). These are deemed “essential” because they cannot be made by the human body; they must be obtained from foods like hemp oil for good heart, brain, and skin health. The ratio of omega-6-to-omega-3 in hemp oil is about 4-to-1, which is much better than the typical Western diet which, as a result of eating too many ultra-processed foods and cheap vegetable oils, can have a ratio as high as 20-to-1.
This heavily skewed ratio is thought to drive up inflammation in the body. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that consuming more plant-based omega-3 fat (also found in walnuts, chia, and flax) was associated with a 10% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20% reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease. The consumption of alpha-linolenic acid had beneficial effects on reducing problematic lipids and lipoproteins – for example, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides – as well as blood pressure and inflammation.
Analysis has also shown that cold-pressed hemp oil contains bioactive phytochemicals, which are compounds that exert antioxidant properties which may help fend off cell-damaging free radicals. Make note that hemp oil sold for culinary purposes contains virtually no THC or CBD.
Where to buy it
You’ll find hemp oil among other oils in the health food section of supermarkets, in shops geared towards natural foods and online from a few brands including Nutiva and Manitoba Harvest.
How to use it
Once opened, hemp oil should be kept in the refrigerator to maintain freshness and extend shelf-life. And you want to hold the heat. It’s too delicate for most cooking purposes, so save hemp oil for use in salad dressings, pesto, dips, or something you drizzle over roasted vegetables or sliced summer fresh tomatoes.
Best new go-anywhere topping: Cacao nibs
You can think of cacao nibs as nuts with a chocolaty edge. They’re dark chocolate’s healthier brother. Following harvest, cacao beans are pulled out of their plant pods, fermented, and then dried. Cacao nibs are simply crushed dark bits of these dried cacao beans. (Note: further processing turns cacao nibs into cacao paste, butter, and powder for use in chocolate products including bars.) That means they contain all the nutritional benefits of chocolate minus the troublesome added sugars.
Small but mighty, nutritional highlights of cacao nibs include plenty of satiating fiber (an impressive 8 grams in a 3-tablespoon serving), along with healthy amounts of magnesium, a typically under-consumed mineral that’s been linked to improved heart health.
In recent years, a handful of scientific studies have shown that consuming dark chocolate products – which would include cacao nibs – can help lessen the risk for various forms of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and heart failure.
Cacao also contains high amounts of epicatechin and other flavonoids, which are powerful plant-based antioxidants also present in tea, red wine, and many fruits. These compounds can help prevent cell damage and inflammation in the body and also improve blood flow for better heart performance. Cacao nibs do contain saturated fat, but this is mostly in the form of stearic acid, which does not appear to negatively impact heart health in the way the saturated fat present in meats may.
Where to buy it
You can purchase cacao nibs from brands like Navitas Organics online, and they are also available from many natural food shops.
How to eat it
As a garnish, cacao nibs add an intense bitter-sweet chocolate flavor and a nice crunch to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothie bowls, puddings, pureed squash soups, ice cream, and even leafy green salads. The nibs make a fanciful addition to homemade granola, energy balls, and trail mix. After spreading your favorite nut butter on toast, scatter on some of these dark nuggets. Or try them as a crunchy alternative to chocolate chips in cookies. You can even grind nibs with your coffee beans for a brew with chocolate-tasting notes.
Best new fruit: Kumquats
When you first bite into these “baby oranges,” your taste buds are in for a surprise. The edible rind is unexpectedly sweet, and the flesh is surprisingly sour. So, think of kumquats as an orange that’s been turned inside out.
Each pigmy fruit has only 13 calories, and a handful of those will give you huge amounts of vitamin C. The results of an 11-year-long study with more than 13,000 participants published in Nutrients revealed that those with the highest vitamin C intake had a lower risk for cardiovascular mortality by 70 percent. The ability of vitamin C to act as antioxidant in our bodies might be why it could be heart protective.
Kumquats also add a dose of fiber to your diet, which may make it a feel-good new food for your diet. A recent investigation published in the journal Menopause showed that premenopausal women with higher dietary fiber intake were less likely to experience depression, compared with premenopausal women with lower fiber intake. Plus, they’re undeniably fun to eat.
Where to buy it
Kumquats occasionally show up in the produce section of supermarkets next to the oranges and grapefruits, but Asian markets can be a more reliable source. Look for fruits that are slightly soft to the touch; overly hard fruit might be an indicator of a dry interior.
How to eat it
Enjoy kumquats as an out-of-hand snack or slice and add to salads and salsas. They’re also a flavorful addition to baked goods, smoothies, and salad dressings. Or, use them to make a chutney for meats.
For more on foods and nutrition tips for your heart health, keep reading:
- 5 Fun Ways to Boost Your Heart Health
- New Study Finds Cranberries May Benefit Heart Health
- Low on Vitamin D? You Might Be Putting Your Heart Health At Risk
Featured recipe: Freekeh Bowl