Simple ways to kick heart-healthy diet up a notch

Millions of Americans follow some sort of heart-healthy diet. Whether it's the DASH Diet or the Mediterranean Diet , these programs all share a common foundation: plants. They may end with lean meats or fish, but they start with fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

These types of diets attempt to lower the percentage of calories from fat and are certainly preferable to the Western pattern diet. But you can feel even stronger and more energetic if you shift to a 100 percent plant-based diet.

Does that sound daunting? It's easier than you think. February is American Heart Month, so what better time to give it a try? Here are four ways to get the most out of your current heart-healthy eating habits.

Make it meatless

We're generally conditioned to think of red meat, chicken, pork and turkey as the main part of a meal.

It's time to change our thinking. By moving meat from main to side dish in your mind, you open up space on your plate for vegetables, grains, sweet potatoes and beans (and yes, you will get a enough protein from these foods).

How to get started?

Rather than make meat the centerpiece of your next meal plan, treat it as a mix-in. When you dice up meat and blend it into a casserole or stir fry or rice dish, you can get away with using (and consuming) less of it, while still getting the flavor you crave.

When you feel ready to take the next step, pick a day of the week to go completely meat-free (i.e., Meatless Monday). Next week, add a second day. Continue adding a new meatless day each week. Once you get into the habit, you'll be surprised how long you can go without meat.

Swap out dairy

With apologies to the state of Wisconsin and dairy farmers, cow's milk is just not good for us. It is full of fat (even the low-fat options) and has casein protein, which has been linked to asthma and certain cancers.

When I suggest cutting back on dairy, the question many of my patients ask is, "How will I get my calcium?" My question in response: "How does the cow get its calcium?" You guessed it, plants! You can cut out the middleman by getting it directly from the source, especially leafy greens, broccoli, peapods, squash and sweet potatoes.

Many of us, though, like the taste of milk and associate it with ice cream and cheeses. How do you give that up? Luckily, you won't have to.

How to get started?

During your next trip to the grocery store, buy a small amount of a dairy alternative. If you pick up a gallon of milk, take the smallest available container of soy, almond, pea or oat milk as well. If you toss a pint of Ben & Jerry's into your cart, grab a pint of nondairy ice cream, too. This will give you a chance to compare them at home.

With so many brands and options, it might take a couple tests, but you'll find a nondairy alternative that suits you.

Stop cooking with oil

Cooking with oil adds fat to your meal that you don't need. Olive oil is without a doubt healthier than vegetable oil or butter. But if you're still struggling to keep your cholesterol down, you should try cooking with no oil at all.

How to get started?

Try sauteing vegetables with water or vegetable broth. Add a little at a time until the veggies release their water and keep themselves from sticking to the pan.

Avoid eggs

Despite valiant efforts by the egg industry to convince you eggs are a heart-healthy food, they are not. A single egg contains a full day's worth of cholesterol (they're also a source of fat). If you eat more than one egg per day, your cardiovascular risk can go up by as much as 19 percent.

How to get started?

Breakfast is typically the most impactful place to phase them out of your diet. Try any of these three easy recipes: southwest tofu scramble, hash browns or steel-cut oatmeal with fresh berries (the best breakfast, in my opinion), available online at

- Dr. Jack Chamberlin is a board-certified cardiologist with Amita Health.