Food & Nutrition: How healthy is your heart?

Published 10:35 am Saturday, March 25, 2023

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How Healthy is your Heart?

Let’s talk about your gut. Wait, what does gut health have to do with heart health? I’m glad you asked! Scientists are learning that the microorganisms in the gut are heavily responsible for the health of the entire body.

The cardiovascular system and the risk factors for chronic CVD (hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes) are affected directly by this gut flora. The bacteria living in the digestive tract send signal molecules that cross the intestinal wall to communicate with tissues and organs in remote locations throughout the body.

These signals:

  • help the body to respond to inflammation,
  • efficiently synthesize beneficial compounds that improve health, and
  • diminish the effects of harmful substances derived from pro-inflammatory foods and environmental triggers.

It is important to have a variety and balance of species of bacteria in the gut. Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes are two common phyla of intestinal bacteria that have different roles in health. Bacteroidetes seem to help with calorie absorption and Firmicutes tend to help more with blood pressure and blood sugar regulation. An imbalance of bacteria can cause obesity, hypertension, and elevated blood sugar. Foods with increased fiber and bioactive chemicals increase the concentration of beneficial bacteria (like types of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes) in the human gut. The plants in our diet not only produce different types and amounts of phytochemicals, nutrients, and minerals, but also promote growth and health of different gut bacteria species.

So what do we need to do? Include a variety of vegetables in our diet, not just one or two favorites, for the most health benefit – gut health, heart health, whole health.

Gut Health Tip

Increase your fiber by substituting lentils in recipes that call for ground meat. If the recipe calls for one pound of ground beef, chicken, or pork, try ½ pound of meat and 1 cup of lentils. The lentils will absorb the flavor of the seasonings and the meat, but with the added benefit of fiber, plant protein, iron, folate, and phytochemicals (mainly carotenoids). Lentils are great on their own, too.

Fiber supports good digestive health and helps to shift the makeup of gut bacteria in ways that enhance both immunity and mood. Research shows that a higher intake of dietary fiber and prebiotics supports healthier immune function, including protection against viruses. Adequate fiber also promotes more and better sleep. Yet just 5% of Americans consume the recommended daily fiber goal of at least 25 grams per day for females and 38 grams for males.

The best way to upgrade your fiber intake is to eat more whole foods, including:

  • Vegetables: fresh, frozen, or low-sodium canned
  • Fruit: fresh, frozen, canned, or dried
  • Whole grains: whole grain bread, cereals, and pasta; oats; brown, red, or wild rice; quinoa
  • Pulses: beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds

Trade lower-fiber processed foods for fiber-rich unprocessed foods. Try these ideas:

  • Swap sugary cereal for oatmeal topped with fruit and nuts
  • Exchange white rice for brown or wild
  • Replace fiberless meat with beans or lentils
  • Trade traditional pasta for pasta made from pulses (black bean, chickpea, lentil)
  • Exchange packaged snacks, like cookies and chips, with a combination of fruit and nuts or veggies with hummus or guacamole

Try these lentil sliders!  This recipe makes fun small burgers (sliders) or you can make regular size patties. They are great on toasted whole grain buns with lettuce and tomato. You can also serve them with tomato sauce. The recipe calls for brown lentils but other varieties would be good as well.

Lentil Sliders Serves 7

Serving Size: 2 sliders

2 cups raw brown lentils

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons tomato paste

8 ounces (approximately 2 cups) mushrooms, chopped

3 large eggs

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup whole-wheat breadcrumbs

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup finely chopped walnuts


Cook the lentils in 8 cups of water over medium heat until tender (30-40 minutes).

Cook onions, carrots, celery, thyme, and salt in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 10 minutes, or until vegetables are soft.

Add tomato paste and cook a minute more, stirring constantly.

Add the mushrooms and cook 15 minutes until mixture is dry.

Put the mixture in a large bowl and cool to room temperature.

Add eggs (or egg substitute), cheese, breadcrumbs, parsley, walnuts, and cooked lentils to vegetable mixture.

Cover and chill for at least 25 minutes.


Preheat oven to 400º F.

Spray a large baking dish with non-stick spray.

Scoop chilled lentil mixture into 1-2 inch balls, packing mixture firmly.

Arrange them on the baking sheet about ¼ inch apart.

Bake for 30 minutes.


Nutrition Information per Serving, 2 sliders:  Calories: 326 calories, Carbohydrates: 44 grams, Fiber: 14 grams, Protein: 21 grams, Fat: 9 grams and Sodium: 493 mg


This Mediterranean Bowl is perfect for meal prep. Utilize already cooked brown rice to throw this lunch or dinner together quickly. Make extra dressing and store in the fridge for next time.


Mediterranean Bowl

1 ½ cups cooked brown rice

1 cup fresh spinach, roughly chopped

½ cup broccoli, roughly chopped (raw or cooked)

½ cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

½ cup garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

Lemon slices to garnish, optional


Lemon Oregano Vinaigrette:

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper


  1. Measure cooked brown rice and place into a medium to large size bowl.

If rice is not cooked, cook according to package directions.

  1. Wash and rinse spinach, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes. Chop or slice vegetables to your preference. Place on top of brown rice.
  2. Drain and rinse a can of garbanzo beans. Place ½ cup on top of brown rice and vegetable mixture.
  3. In a small bowl, combine vinaigrette ingredients. Whisk together with a fork. Drizzle all over brown rice, vegetables, and beans.
  4. Toss to combine. Add lemon slices as garnish (optional).


Nutrition Information per recipe: Calories: 640, Carbohydrates: 112 grams, Fiber: 15 grams, Protein: 15 grams, Fat: 17 grams and Sodium: 340 mg.


Sources for this article NC Extension Food and Nutrition, Med instead of Meds educational program and the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute.  For more information about the Foods and Nutrition please contact Louise L. Hinsley, Extension Agent, Family Consumer Science at the Beaufort County Center of NC Cooperative Extension, 155 Airport Road, Washington, NC  252-946-0111.