Flexing in the Kitchen

Two men cooking dinner together.

We often hear about which foods we shouldn’t eat if we want to protect our heart: No red meat. No sugar. No salt. It’s somewhat harder to know what we should consume.

“You can’t just throw away all the unhealthy stuff you’ve been eating if you don’t know what to replace it with,” says Anne McIlhenny, CDE, a dietitian at UVM Health Network – Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, N.Y. “You also have to know why these foods are good for you and how they’re helping your body.” 

Given that heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, just about everyone should be interested in heart-healthy eating. To start, choose foods that fuel your heart’s muscular strength and support a healthy electrical system, says Aderonke Adeniyi, MD, a cardiologist at Alice Hyde Medical Center. Reach for high-fiber, high-protein foods that are low in saturated fat.

While it might seem a convenient way to sidestep the need for healthy eating, some of the most beneficial elements of food, like phytochemicals and enzymes, can’t be reliably reproduced artificially. “I always favor eating something over taking a pill,” says Dr. Adeniyi. “Instead of taking fish oil, just eat a fatty fish, like salmon.”

Heart Healthy Ingredients 

Both McIlhenny and Dr. Adeniyi recommend the following ingredients to improve cardiovascular health. 

  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, bulgur)
  • Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens) are a good source of fiber, which lowers cholesterol. 
  • Nuts and seeds (in moderation – check your serving size)
  • Legumes (beans and peas)
  • Olive oil and other sources of fat that don’t solidify at room temperature
  • Fish (particularly fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like anchovies, mackerel and salmon) 

If these healthy options sound unappealing at first, McIlhenny suggests you try several types before throwing in the towel. “Some people find whole grain pasta unappealing, but there are some brands that have a good consistency and taste.” You also can’t expect to love every kind of fish or vegetable, she says, but there are enough healthy options out there that you should be able to find some that suit you. 

Of course, identifying healthy ingredients is only half the battle. Turning them into a delicious meal instead of a culinary endurance test is the trick. Here are some recipes to get you started.

Blueberry Almond Protein Bar

Yield: 10 bars


  • 1 ½ cup raw almonds, rough chop
  • ½ cup raw pepita (pumpkin) seeds
  • ⅔ cup puffed rice
  • ⅔ cup dried blueberries
  • ½ cup coconut flakes, unsweetened
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds or hemp seeds
  • ⅓ cup brown rice syrup
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon 
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


  1. Line an 8”x 8” baking dish with parchment, set aside.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, add almonds, pepita seeds, puffed rice, dried blueberries, coconut, chia seeds. Toss and combine, set aside.
  3. In a small pan, heat brown rice syrup, salt, cinnamon, turmeric and vanilla until boiling, stirring occasionally. Let the sauce boil for 4-5 minutes.
  4. Pour evenly over the almond mixture and quickly stir the mixture until evenly coated with sauce. It hardens quickly; move fast!
  5. Quickly transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish. Press firmly into an even layer.
  6. Let bars cool for 30 minutes.
  7. Carefully lift the parchment paper and bars from the baking dish and transfer to a cutting board. Peel away parchment paper.
  8. Cut into 10 bars.
  9. Bars will last up to 10 days, in a sealed container at room temperature, or up to three months in the freezer.

Salmon Cakes

Yield: 6 cakes


  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 carrot, diced 
  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 (16-ounce) can of salmon 
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup of bread crumbs
  • Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon 
  • 1 tablespoon of mustard
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Sautee onions, garlic, carrots and celery until soft. 
  2. Place mixture in large bowl. Add canned salmon and mix well. 
  3. Add eggs, bread crumbs, lemon juice/zest and mustard. 
  4. Shape into patties, place on a plate and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. 
  5. Heat cast iron pan with 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat.
  6. Place patties in the pan and brown on each side for 1 minute.

Mediterranean Barley Salad

Yield: 12 servings


  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup barley, rinsed
  • 4 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • ¼ cup sun dried tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ English cucumber, medium diced
  • 1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped


  1. Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan
  2. Add barley, 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring back to a boil. Adjust heat to maintain gentle simmer, cover and cook until tender, about 30 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 more minutes.
  4. Drain excess liquid if needed. Cool.
  5. In a large serving bowl, whisk the lemon juice, red wine vinegar, honey and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt.
  6. Gradually whisk in the remaining oil in a steady stream.
  7. Add cooled barley and the oregano, olives, tomatoes, cucumber and parsley. Toss, season and serve.

Recipes by Leah Pryor, Executive Chef, University of Vermont Medical Center.

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