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updated: 2/7/2012 1:15 PM

Simple tweaks make soul food more heart healthy

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  • A smoked turkey leg stands in for a ham bone in this healthier take on braised collard greens.

       A smoked turkey leg stands in for a ham bone in this healthier take on braised collard greens.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Traditional soul food dishes popular in African American culture often are prepared with a lot of artery clogging saturated fat and blood pressure raising sodium. But it doesn't have to be that way.

February, both Black History Month and American Heart Month, presents us with an ideal opportunity to explore ways to make soul food more heart healthy without drastically changing the taste.

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Many staples of common soul food include healthy vegetables such as dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes and cholesterol lowering black-eyed peas. Problems arise, however, when those ingredients get cooked with ham hocks, fat back, bacon, salt, lard and shortening that add saturated fat, calories and sodium to the dish.

Modifications to these favorite recipes are important for African Americans because studies show this group is more vulnerable to certain illnesses than other racial and ethnic groups. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of African Americans. More than 40 percent of African American adults have high blood pressure and another 40-plus percent have high cholesterol (not necessarily the same 40 percent).

To continue eating these favorite dishes, start by adjusting the cooking method. Steaming vegetables is a great way to cook vegetables without adding extra fat. Put away the deep fat fryer and try boiling, roasting, baking, grilling, braising or stir frying with a small amount of oil. Cook with a mono- or polyunsaturated fat such as olive, peanut or canola oil instead of saturated fat lard or shortening.

To lower sodium in your foods, reduce by half the amount of salt listed in recipes. Any recipe that has a seasoning that contains the word "salt" like garlic salt, onion salt or season salt should be a red flag. Opt instead for fresh garlic and onion, or garlic and onion powder to flavor vegetables and meats.

Other blood pressure raising culprits are canned vegetables, broths and bouillons. The easiest replacement is "no added salt" canned vegetables and "low sodium" soups. Just read the labels.

Cholesterol can form plaque on the inner walls of the arteries which will make it harder for the heart to circulate blood. To decrease the cholesterol and fat content in recipes use 1 percent or skim milk in place of 2 percent or whole milk. Instead of the higher fat meat choices, choose turkey thighs, lean ham, ground turkey breast, or smoked turkey neck or leaner cuts of meat such as pork tenderloin.

As you celebrate Black History Month and American Heart Month use these tips for healthy cooking and ingredient choices to create healthy soul food today and every day.

• Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian, works for the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center and is a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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