Make it Healthier: Lentil Soup

When your are trying to eat healthier, you don’t always have to reach for the health cookbooks. Your favorite recipes, and even new recipes you have been dying to try, can be changed around to be healthier. From now on, I am going to start posting some of the recipes I have changed and the estimated impact on their nutritional values.

In Gainesville, I got very involved with soups. I made all kinds of soups, but one of my favorites is lentil soup. I found this recipe on the food network but I wasn’t thrilled about all the ingredients. I try to use very little meat, if any, in the dishes I cook at home. Making something vegetarian is an easy way to get rid of calories and fat in a meal. I also changed the kind of broth and the quantity to help reduce sodium. I added no extra salt and added black pepper to taste. This makes approximately 11, 1 cup servings.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons of olive oil

4 large celery stalks, sliced

3 large carrots, peeled and sliced

1 large white onion, chopped

6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons of dried oregano

4 cups of low sodium organic vegetable broth

4 cups of water

2 (14-ounce) cans of diced tomatoes (basil, garlic, oregano flavored) in juice

1 bag (about 14 ounces) of lentils, rinsed

Directions:

Saute the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, oregano, and rosemary in the olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add the vegetable broth, water, and tomatoes with their juice. Bring it to a boil and then add the lentils. Reduce to a simmer, and cover. It should take about 40 minutes for the lentils to become tender. Add black pepper to taste and serve.

Approximate calculations of nutritional value per 1 cup serving:

Calories: 144

Fat: 2 g

Saturated Fat: 0.3 g

Sodium: 422 mg

Carbohydrates: 30 g

Fiber: 12 g

Sugar: 4 g

Protein: 10 g

Comparing this to the original recipe you are avoiding approximately 126 calories, 506 mg of sodium, 5 g of fat, 2 g of saturated fat, 57 mg of cholesterol per serving! You could take this recipe even further by purchasing canned tomatoes with no salt added and by skipping the sautéing part by cooking the vegetables in the broth or by sautéing and draining the oil prior to adding the broth.

These strategies can be used in tackling all your favorite recipes. Even though you may not think that it makes a huge difference, every little bit matters.

Happy cooking everyone!

***Keep in mind, these are approximations based on brands I have used and the brands I have compared them too. The above figures are just to give you an estimation of the benefits of making these changes.

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Please don’t pass the salt

Salt, or its alter ego sodium, has become a huge problem for Americans. The U.S. government has been compelled to address the issue, claiming that 50% of Americans need to drastically reduce their daily sodium intake. How do you know if you’re in that 50%? Should we all be taking steps to reduce the sodium in our lives?

Sodium is extremely important for many of your body’s daily tasks, like controlling your fluid levels, so why is too much a problem? If you intake more salt than your kidneys can filter out, the sodium that builds up in your blood causes you to retain fluids (that gorgeous bloating look you get after a really salty meal). This in turn elevates your blood pressure because of the increased stress on your heart from having to pump the larger amount of blood. High blood pressure is associated with various ailments including heart disease and stroke so it isn’t something to take lightly.

Sources of Sodium for Americans

When looking for the sources of sodium in the American diet, the Mayo Clinic found that an alarming 77% of sodium we intake comes from processed and prepared foods. This may shock some people who think that because they avoid processed foods they do not have to worry about their sodium intake. My warning to you all is that if you eat outside of your home, regardless of where you go, you should be concerned about your sodium intake. In my case, I found out that my favorite quick meal, an “all natural”  low fat chicken noodle soup served at a national chain restaurant, contains over 1400 mg of sodium. That’s over half of your daily recommended value of 2300 mg!

Besides limiting my dining out, I also avoid processed foods whenever possible (this can sometimes be difficult when your are a college student or someone on the go but it’s important to do the best you can). Additionally, I have taken the steps to reduce the salt I knowingly add to my meals. For example, I cannot control how much salt a company chooses to put in their vegetable broth, but I can choose a lower sodium option and mix broth with water to dilute the sodium. I can also eliminate extra sodium by avoiding the salt shaker altogether. It’s okay for food to come in flavors other than “salty.” If you learn to cook with herbs and spices I guarantee you won’t miss the extra salt. Basil, rosemary, cayenne pepper, oregano, and cumin, are just a few staples in my cabinet that give my food tons of flavor without the health risk.

There are many “salt traps” that can be easily avoided. For example, condiments such as salad dressings and sauces are notoriously high in sodium. Alternatives such as oil and vinegar, or making your own dressings and sauces could save you 100s of mg of sodium in just one serving. Try my favorite salad dressing which is balsamic vinegar with garlic powder and black pepper sprinkled on top. You’ll forget all about your trusty salt shaker.

Another trap is deceiving product labels. Just because a label says that the product has “reduced sodium” doesn’t mean you should add it to your pantry. It’s important to check all labels because “reduced sodium” could still be an excessive amount.

Reducing your daily sodium intake is likely to be beneficial to your health and is easily possible once you know what to look out for and what to do to make the transition painless. Feel free to leave your sodium reducing tips below.

Listen to your heart…

Heart disease. To you it may just be two words on a website but to thousands of families each year, these words are much more devastating.

The word “heart disease” covers a variety of heart afflictions including the most common type, coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease is caused by the narrowing of the arteries, which are the vessels that supply blood to your heart, due to a build up of plaque (cholesterol deposits). Heart disease is the #1 cause of death for both men and women in the United States, and it is estimated that one in every four Americans will die because of it.

Many people are unaware of how at risk they are for heart disease. Men are more likely to develop heart disease but women also have an increased risk following menopause. As we age our risk for heart disease is greater as well. It is also important to check your blood pressure and cholesterol levels often because both high blood pressure and high cholesterol puts you at a higher risk for developing heart disease. Do not forget to know your family history. Many people fail to recognize disease patterns in their families and many times your family history can be your first warning to what may lie ahead.

This is what heart disease looks like

Still not worried? Chances are you are not living the best heart healthy lifestyle.

If you smoke, STOP! Not just because it increases your risk of heart disease but for so many reasons.

If you eat poorly, change your diet because you are what you eat. If you eat a diet full of junk it is likely that your heart will suffer the consequences. Try to limit your fat, sugar, and salt intake, your entire body will thank you.

If you are obese or physically inactive, then get moving. Being obese will increase your risk for exacerbating some of heart diseases risk factors such as diabetes. Exercising can help you lose weight and decrease your risk of heart disease. It’s a win win! (Note: exercise is just as important for people who are not obese. Your heart is a muscle so it should be worked out as well)

If you are stressed, whether it be school, work, or life in general find a way to alleviate it. Stress can damage blood vessels and may increase the likelihood of developing heart disease through various risk factors. If changing your job or school load is not an option, find ways to relieve your stress like reading a book at night or doing yoga. Even deep breathing for five minutes can be extremely effective at relieving stress.

My final advice…take care of your heart because you only get one.

Quinoa, the Protein Disguised as a Grain

So I have decided that my first post will be about quinoa.

I first came across quinoa when it was presented on The Doctors television show as one of the healthiest food items. I quickly began reading about it and was presently surprised. Quinoa is 100% whole grain, wheat free, gluten free, and it contains all the essential amino acids so it is considered a complete protein. It is also an excellent source of fiber, iron, phosphorus, and riboflavin. Basically quinoa is the perfect side dish (replacing rice, pasta, etc.) to all those who vegetarian (who are always looking for different ways to get their daily protein), allergic to wheat or gluten, or to someone who is just looking for a healthier option.

Quinoa is also a joy to prepare. It cooks extremely fast on the stove, in a rice cooker, or even in the microwave, and it readily absorbs the flavors you cook it in.

Below is a picture of how I prepared quinoa this evening:

I cooked it on the stove in low sodium chicken broth and once cooked mixed in a dressing of fresh thyme, dried oregano, black pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice.

I know it does not look very appetizing but I promise it is delicious! Imagine really tiny grains of rice but with more of a bite to it. If you cannot imagine what it would be like (or even if you can) I strongly recommend trying this out.

I was able to find the above box at my local grocery store (which is not the most health food friendly store) so I imagine that it is becoming readily available at most stores. I located it in the organic foods aisle but if your store does not have one, it could probably be found among the rice and pastas. If you cannot find it in stores it is widely available online as well.

It paid around $4 for the box but each box contains approximately 7-8 servings. Not a bad deal for an organic, 100% whole grain, complete protein, extremely healthy option.

I strongly suggest trying out quinoa and incorporating it into your diet. If you have had quinoa before or were convinced to try a new recipe let me know how it turned out. I love hearing about new ways to cook the things I love.