Diet-to-Go Blog
  1. Eating Smarter for A Healthier Heart: 7 Questions with Robert Leighton

    The Kardea Gourmet: Smart and Delicious Eating for a Healthy Heart (LINX) is being published this month to coincide with American Heart Month. Written by Richard Collins, MD and Robert Leighton -- with Susan Buckley RD -- the book is part cookbook and part nutrition handbook, but it's all about guiding your journey to a heart healthy, delicious style of eating.

    The Kardea Gourmet is a collaboration of three people: a preventive cardiologist dedicated to keeping people healthy; a gourmet home chef, foodie and former chocolate executive with a cholesterol problem; and a registered dietitian who spends her days coaching people on heart healthy eating and weight loss.

    Co-writer Robert Leighton is the founder of Kardea Nutrition. He started the company while searching for non-medicinal ways to battle his inherited cholesterol problem.

    Leighton recently sat down with Diet-to-Go chief editor John McGran to answer 7 questions about eating heart-healthy and reversing the obesity trend that's linked to heart disease and other serious health issues.

    Diet-to-Go: Why is there need for yet another book on "smart and delicious eating for a healthy heart?"

    Robert Leighton: Here is the good news. Death rates from heart disease and stroke continue to decline. The bad news is that every 40 seconds, an American adult dies from a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke. Here is the worse news: the American heart is sicker than it has ever been.

    Only through a dramatic increase in the use of pharmaceuticals and medical procedures have we been able to prevent a heart attack and stroke epidemic.

    We might look to blame the individual for poor eating habits and lack of exercise. Just read any number of heart health or diet books, and they will tell you what to do. Do we do it? Generally speaking, no!

    But let's not blame the victim. Individual effort to eat heart healthy are overwhelmed by our hectic lifestyles that made more manageable by the processed and prepared foods that deliver high levels of nutrients that harm and few nutrients that help. Healthy eating efforts also are derailed by the fact that harmful foods are substantially cheaper than truly healthy foods.

    Within the realities of modern America, The Kardea Gourmet offers an actionable framework for guiding the journey to heart healthy eating, at our own pace, based on our own risks, tastes and lifestyle preference.

    It explores the Mediterranean diet, the China Study and other old ways of eating. It looks beyond low fat versus good fat, and low carb versus good carb. It examines what we are learning in the clinics and the research labs.

    It also looks beyond "what we eat" to "how we cook," offering a set of delicious recipes that you can adapt along the journey. It helps you steer your cravings to support years of vital, heart healthy living.


    DTG: What's wrong with the traditional Western diet?

    RL: Every time we eat, we trigger countless chemical reactions in our body. Medical researchers are focusing on the "postprandial period" -- the 4 to 6 hours after a meal to better understand the effect on the arteries. When these reaction burn in control during the postprandial period, we are supporting life. When it blazes like a wildfire, we do our arteries -- in our hearts, in our brains, throughout our bodies -- harm.

    The Standard American Diet (SAD) brings many unhealthy ingredients into less healthy recipes. We then combine these unhealthy recipes into even less healthy meals. We then eat to excess. Meal after meal, Americans are fueling the wild fires.

    The Kardea Gourmet coaches on how to combine mostly healthy ingredients (with some that we love but may not love us) to create healthy recipes. We then discuss how mostly healthy recipes can be matched to create healthier meals, keeping the post-meal burn in control.


    DTG: How does a bad diet harm your heart; conversely, how does your diet help a heart recover?

    RL: A variety of factors affect the health of our arteries. LDL cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, inflammation and blood sugar do damage. Excessive weight also can harm. Other factors like HDL cholesterol and perhaps the high blood levels of antioxidants, can support heart and arterial health.

    Different foods and different nutrients can very significantly affect these factors, good and bad. These nutrients also help or harm each individual to differing degrees.


    DTG: What if you've been eating poorly for 30 years or more... is there hope?

    RL: There is always hope! Medical research like doctors. Esselstyn, Ornish and Fuhrman have shown how whole, natural plant-based diets -- high in the nutrients that help and low in the nutrients that can harm -- are effective treatment for the reversal of heart disease.

    The challenge, of course, is that these are difficult diets to maintain in modern America. The Kardea Gourmet helps translate the recommendations of these doctors into something that is sustainable and enjoyable.


    DTG: What foods should we NEVER eat; what foods should we ALWAYS eat?

    RL: To our knowledge, there is nothing sold as foods that kill with one serving. There also are no foods that are cure-all, regardless of how much you eat. In fact, we really have difficulty with super-health food trends that inevitably crash.

    Twenty years ago, it was oat fiber and low fat. We then moved to good fats and good carbs. And then came high antioxidant super-fruits like acai, pomegranate and blueberry. There is some good in all of these. Alone, none are particularly therapeutic.


    DTG: I see your plan wants us to work our way towards a plant-based diet. I like meat... a lot. Can you convert me?

    RL: I like meat too. So does Dr. Collins. We are just finding ways to include fewer animal-based foods in our diets.

    Read any number of the heart healthy cookbooks on the market. They recommend that meat be kept to 4 ounces in any meal. Have you ever seen 4-ounce steak on a plate? It is really laughable. I needed to think about using meat differently.

    A beef bourguignon became a vegetable bourguignon with beef. After a few years, it became a vegetable bourguignon with Portobello and porcini mushrooms. In my cooking, I have come to think of meat as another ingredient, to add taste and texture, not to rule the plate.

    That said, if it's lots of meat that you still want, give careful thought to how the meat is cooked. Meats that are flame-broiled, cooked at high temperatures, well-done and deep-fried have been shown to be harmful, while there is evidence that lean meats cooked at lower temperatures do not hurt us as much.

    There also is some evidence that free-range beef and bison have a better nutritional profile than corn-fed beef. But here is something to remember: healthy eating is not just about avoiding foods that harm; it also is about enjoying the foods that help.

    You will be healthier if you match your meats properly. Replace the baked potato topped with butter with a whole grain like a cholesterol-lowering barley pilaf.

    And finally, don't take any nutritional recommendation on faith. The goal is to achieve your targets around key controllable factors relating to heart health: cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation. Whether meat is in your diet or not, stay focused on these targets.


    DTG: Going plant-based always seems like too much work when it comes to cooking and creating a varied menu of meals. Can eating vegetarian really be simple and flavorful?

    Plant-based should not be understood as vegetarian. There are lots of vegetarians who eat an unhealthy combination of foods. There are lots of people who eat meat, cheese and fish that have a much healthier diet, just be mindful that they are not enjoying the healthiest way to eat.

    The plant-based philosophy is very useful in guiding healthy eating. As you move toward a plant-based way you will be consuming more foods that help and fewer that harm.

    Can it be delicious? That is an interesting question. Four years ago, when I started my journey, I would not have believed that I would crave what I crave today. Small steps, taken over the course of time, all in the same direction, have fundamentally altered what I find delicious.

    I do think that the harder challenge is less about taste and more about ease. Kardea's mission is to try to make assembling the healthy meal easier and more fun. Diet-to-Go is doing the same thing. Restaurant chains and supermarkets also are trying.

    It is not like the unhealthy foods are not still there. Many of these restaurants could not stay in business if they only served healthy foods. But we are seeing a wider selection of healthy foods available like oatmeal at Starbucks and McDonalds, lower-sodium foods and cheaper fruits and vegetables at Walmart, "Health-Starts-Here" prepared foods at Whole Foods.

    For more information about eating healthier for your heart, go to

    To pre-order your copy of The Kardea Gourmet: Smart and Delicious Eating for a Healthy Heart, click here.

    Author: John McGran

    Overall Health & Nutrition
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