One in three Americans die from heart disease or strokes. That amounts to 2,200 deaths every day.
Colorado cardiologist Dr. Richard Collins believes a way to fight this trend is to tackle the illness before it starts, simply by teaching people how to eat better.
“Food,” said Collins, “is medicine.”
Collins, 68, may be the only cardiologist in the United States who gives cooking demonstrations to teach people how to avoid connecting with doctors like him in the operating room.
“My main goal is to tell you how to bypass your bypass,” he said.
Eight years ago, Collins and his partners installed a professional kitchen – adjacent to an exercise facility – at their South Denver Cardiology Associates office in Littleton. Every Monday, Collins holds lunchtime nutrition and cooking classes, trading his lab coat for a bright red apron emblazoned with the words “Cooking Cardiologist.”
A tube snaked around his neck looks like a stethoscope. But instead of a listening device on the end, it connects to a common kitchen utensil. He calls it his “whisk-o-scope.” Anyone who wants to learn is welcome, the classes are free, and are often full, with as many as 80 students. Over the years, hundreds have passed through the kitchen.
The medical group absorbs the costs of the school, but Collins says it’s money saved over the long-run. The majority of the risk factors for expensive illnesses – including heart disease, hypertension and stroke – can be reduced by lifestyle changes.
“Diet is number one,” he explains. “Only 37 percent of us have a healthy kitchen at home.”
During one recent class he whipped up a fresh meal just like a TV chef. In fact, he’s not new to the television world. During the 2008 Super Bowl, he and former NFL halfback Jerome “The Bus” Bettis set a Guinness World Record for cooking the most heart-healthy meals in a three-hour period. With the help of several Phoenix restaurants, they fed 3,000 people in an area three football fields long.
Collins’ websiteoffers recipes for foods like heart-healthy chili and a cheesecake that uses egg-substitute and ricotta cheese. His recipes include tasty-sounding dishes like Grilled Moroccan Salmon with Charmoula Sauce and Apple Tart En Papillote.
For Collins, the optimal culinary model is a Mediterranean diet modeled after the eating habits of rural Crete, Greece and Southern Italy. To illustrate, he holds up a pyramid chart designed in the early 1990s by Harvard and the World Health Organization. The pyramid is bottom-heavy, with recommendations to eat mostly fruits, vegetables, grains and fish. At the top are foods advised to be eaten within reason – lean meat, chicken and, occasionally, sweets.
“Sometimes we get this pyramid upside down, especially in America with a lot of heavy meat eaters,” he said. “We have to change our thinking. No breakfast without fruit. No meal without vegetables.”
Collins has three major tips on how to start eating for a healthy heart: First, eliminate sugar beverages, like pop. Second, balance meals. “Many Americans avoid breakfast, they skip lunch, and then when it’s gangbusters at night.” Finally, avoid trans fats, which can be found in stick margarine, cake mixes, frozen pizza, ramen noodles and fast food.
“They’re man-made chemicals,” said Collins’ colleague, dietician Susan Buckley. Trans fats are made in a laboratory. Not only do they lower your good cholesterol, they raise that bad cholesterol.”
Buckley says her top three food categories are vegetables and fruits, grains and lean proteins with omega 3’s like salmon, trout and lean turkey. She recommends people fill their plates halfway with fruits and vegetables.
“Most of my patients are not getting enough vegetables. I’d recommend five to ten servings a day,” she said.
Back in the Cooking Cardiologist’s kitchen, Kathy Stafford, a mother from Highlands Ranch, is spending her lunchtime taking notes. “I have little girls, and I just want to teach them how to eat healthy.” Stafford is making a promise to herself not to grab junk food off of the grocery store shelves, and instead to pay close attention to what she’s putting in her shopping cart.
Collins says healthy heart habits start with being aware.
“Most people know what to do to eat healthily, but somewhere there is a disconnect and they don’t do it,” he said. For those of us who don’t quite get it, he has seven easy words to remember: “Eat quality foods. Smaller portions. Mostly plants.”
Motherlode New York Strawberry Cheesecake
1 1/4 cups reduced fat graham cracker crumbs
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. egg substitute
15 oz. reduced fat or fat free ricotta cheese
12 oz. nonfat cream cheese
1/2 cup egg substitute
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup nonfat sour cream
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 pint basket fresh strawberries, stems removed
Place the crumbs and egg substitute in a mixing bowl, mixing until crumbs are moist. Adjust consistency to create a crumbled texture that is pliable.
Coat a 9-inch spring form pan with cooking spray. Using a small measuring cup, press the crumbs down on the bottom and slightly up the sides to approximately 1/2 inch thick. Bake the crust at 3500F in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Cool.
Place all filling ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Pour the filling into the crust and bake at 3250F for 55 to 60 minutes until the center is firm. The center should measure 1500F to prevent cracking.
Finish the cheesecake with the sour cream/sugar topping, mixing both and spreading over the top. Return to oven for 10 minutes. Turn off oven and leave door ajar. Bring to room temperature, cover cheesecake and refrigerate at least three hours. Release spring form. Arrange strawberries on top, serve at room temperature.
Note from the Cooking Cardiologist: The Cheesecake Factory lists the calories in their original cheesecake as 710 per serving. This recipe has 216 calories and is just as rich. Enjoy!