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Although culturally diverse in their recipes, flavors and ingredients, nearly all traditional diets from around the world are centered on a foundation of heart-healthy ingredients and habits. 

February is heart health month and it’s the perfect time to shine a spotlight on habits that are good for your heart. When we look to traditional diets, we have a roadmap for healthy, delicious living. 

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  1. Use herbs and spices to reduce salt

Herbs and spices boost the flavor of your meal, so that you don’t need to rely on a lot of salt. Technically, herbs are the leaves of the plant (think of basil, cilantro, parsley), while spices come from the roots, bark, and seeds (think of cinnamon, cumin, ginger, turmeric). 

Although sprinkling in a little salt is a normal part of cooking, keeping our sodium intake in check is a good way to take care of our heart health. When you cook, use spices in your soups, stews, and sauces, and sprinkle freshly chopped herbs into salads, grain dishes—and, well, just about anything you’re cooking! You’ll find that you rely on salt less and less as you incorporate more herbs and spices into a meal. 

To use up extra herbs that may be hanging out in your fridge, make a sauce of blended herbs and olive oil. You’ll find variations of these in many heritage cuisines—Garlicky Dill Mojo Sauce inspired by the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, Chimichurri from Argentina, Pesto Genovese from Italy, and more. Use these herb sauces on grilled or roasted vegetables, with seafood, or tossed with a pasta or a whole grain.

 2. Enjoy a walk

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At the base of all five of Oldways’ Heritage Diet Pyramids—African, Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, and Vegetarian/Vegan—you’ll find images of people walking and staying active. Exercise is an important piece of heart health.

Traditionally, people were active on a daily basis, incorporating walking and movement into their everyday routines. If you love the gym, that’s great! But if you don’t, starting your morning with a walk, or getting outside during your lunch break, is a great way to add more movement to your day. 

Dancing, gardening, yoga, and online exercise videos are a few more fun ways to get a little more activity in your day-to-day routine! Find a fitness practice that you enjoy, and you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.

3. Use healthy fats — like olive oil, nuts, avocados and seafood

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Did you know that in the traditional Greek/Cretan diet, more than 35 percent of calories came from fat? When it comes to eating fat, it’s the type that matters.

Heritage diets limit saturated fat, which typically comes from animal products like red meat and butter. Instead, they emphasize sources of unsaturated fats. This type of fat can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. It also provides nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. 

Some simple ways to incorporate unsaturated fats in your diet include:

  • Cooking with olive oil. You can use olive oil for many forms of cooking—sauteing, roasting, grilling, and more. You can even bake with it to boost the nutrition in your baked goods, like this delicious Sicilian Almond Orange Cake
  • Eating nuts and seeds. These are nutrient-dense foods that offer heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols (antioxidants found in plants). In addition to snacking on a small handful of unsalted nuts, you can use nuts in recipes and cooking (check out this blog for a list of ideas!)

●      Eating seafood two times per week. Seafood is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and is a lean source of protein. We love this Grilled Snapper & Mangos with Lime-Cilantro Vinaigrette, and this Garlic Spiced Salmon with Kachumber.

Canned seafood like mackerel and sardines is especially quick-cooking and affordable, featured in Oldways recipes like Whole Grain Pasta with Swiss Chard and Sardines, and Salmon Meatballs with Cucumber Yogurt

  • Incorporate avocado! Avocados head the list of healthy fruits, although they’re often categorized as a vegetable since they taste so great in salads. Smooth, buttery, and needing nothing but a quick “nick and peel” to eat as a healthy snack, they contain “good” fats, are linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases, and rank as one of the “super foods” of the Mediterranean Diet. Check out 12 ways to use them!

4. Eat more whole grains

The health benefits of whole grains are far-reaching—and the medical evidence is clear that whole grains reduce risk of stroke, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. 

Eating more whole grains can be as simple as swapping whole grain bread, pasta, and products in place of white bread, white pasta, and other refined grain products. Or, you can embark on a whole grain journey and cook with global whole grains like teffamaranthmilletbulgur and more. For global recipes featuring whole grains, check out our book Whole Grains Around the World


5. Enjoy meals with others

Sharing  meals around the table is a great joy of life, and one that’s good for you, too. Eating together can help reduce stress, build family relationships, and improve the quality of food choices. Frequent family meals have also been related to better nutritional intake. Check out our Simply Mediterranean post for more information—a family meal does not need to be complex in order to have great benefits! 

February is a great time to take extra care of our heart health.  Browse our recipe collection for heart-healthy dishes.


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Renee White
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