Since many health-conscious folks have recently forsaken the hunt for healthy methods of cooking in favor of NO cooking at all, it seems appropriate to begin with a helping of raw...data. This can be a tedious exercise, but bear with me.

  • Sodium content of one serving (1 oz.) of Nacho Cheese Doritos: 200 mg
  • Sodium content of one serving (3.5 oz.) of red wine: 8 mg
  • Size of a “standard” (non single-serve) size bag of Doritos: 12 oz.
  • Number of oz. in a “standard” 750 ml bottle of red wine: 26 2/3 oz.
  • Recommended daily intake of sodium, in mg: 2400 mg or below

Now, I must ask you to ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. How many times have you opened a bag of chips and carefully eaten 1/12 of the bag?
  2. Which feels better, drinking a bottle of red wine or eating 1/12 of a bag of chips?

Dear reader, I admit to a trifling level of facetiousness here. I am not counseling drunkeness as a viable avenue to cardiovascular health, even if the math tells us that you would have to drink the entire bottle of wine before even approaching the sodium level in one ounce of Doritos. That said, I think it is helpful to employ humor and fact together to illustrate both the staggering differences in the sodium content of foods commonly bought and consumed in our fair nation, and also the pitfalls of reductionist thinking in pursuing good health. I am of the belief that the effects of diet on health cannot be overemphasized, but at the same time it is well to be humble when reckoning them up. Treating each organ of the body separately as though they were so much plaster and lath—or doing the same to the building blocks of nutrition—may be instructive in crisis situations but is almost certain to lead to oversimplified conclusions when dealing with a basically sound animal. It is with this caveat that I approach the subject of heart-healthy cooking.

Fat and sodium
To continue to oversimplify for a bit: the big boogeymen of heart health are fat and sodium. The bad news is no challenge to convey: these two elements of cuisine are practically synonymous with flavor. This is not to say that most people of sound mind actually seek these out as star players on the dinner table, but they are sure to be present in high levels in foods that people tend to crave and binge on (chocolate being an important exception)—chips, fast foods, buttered popcorn, cheesy casseroles and hot dishes.

The good news is that cooking and eating in ways that are better for your heart need not mean giving up flavor, although it is easy to get that impression from some “scare” diets. Ironically, the highest levels of sodium outside of cured meats are to be found in processed foods, and there are plenty of snake-oil merchants ready to sell frightened dieters a prepackaged magic cure for their malaise. The truth about how to cook and eat for heart health is surprisingly simple, but simple things are never easy. You have to cook your food from a balanced choice of fresh ingredients and season judiciously. So easy to say—not so easy to do or, it seems, more people would be doing it—right?

Maybe. One of the perennial attractions of processed foods is convenience—speed. Another is the outsized, primary-color palate of flavors that typify packaged sauces, soups and frozen meals. The manufacturers sort of know they have to get your attention fast. After all, you didn’t have time to make your food—how much time do you have to appreciate subtle flavors? Generally, broths in canned soups carry a sodium wallop heavy enough to inspire them to play games with recommended portion sizes. One cup of soup is the portion? Please refer to the brief questionnaire above—when was the last time you ate one cup of soup and were satisfied? More likely, you eat a pint and in so doing get yourself a whopping 1720 mg of sodium (Progresso Traditional Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice, from General Mills’s website).

The “Mediterranean Diet,” which was a very hot topic when I was in culinary school, is outlined on the Mayo Clinic website beginning with the following advice on choosing foods. “Getting plenty of exercise and eating your meals with family and friends.” As I mentioned, good health is rarely as simple as coming up with a magic list of safe foods or techniques.

Best practice for heart health
Moderate your use of meats, especially cured meats (ham, bacon, salami, jerky) and fatty cuts of red meat. By “moderate” I mean once or twice a week at most. Avoid deep frying and pan frying—opt for poaching, steaming, stir-frying or grilling wherever possible. Choose olive oil or canola oil as your cooking fat—use butter sparingly and enjoy its full flavor as a condiment or in a rare treat of rich pastry. Most important of all—shun processed foods or treat them as another form of pure salt and tailor the amounts you eat or use accordingly. It’s not a corporate plot to kill you—salt is one of the oldest known preservatives and is used in that capacity in processed foods. If you cook from scratch, you choose how much salt to use and you don’t need to use enough to be harmful just to season the dish.

Lastly—and I usually think of this as sheer precious egotism when I see it in restaurants—keep the salt off the table. Work on seasoning the food carefully and flavorfully (if you like spicy food, most of them are quite low in sodium) in the kitchen and then make yourself get up and get the salt rather than just have it at your elbow. And get plenty of exercise, eat with friends, keep away from the chips and cupcakes. It’s your good luck that red wine tastes best with a simple dish of fresh vegetables, lean meat, olive oil and pasta or rice.