Look for whole, unprocessed foods
Complicate your carbs
Another heart-healthy swap is trading simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, or potatoes, for veggie-based alternatives with more fiber. For instance, try swapping in roasted carrot sticks instead of French fries, or use lettuce instead of tortillas or hamburger buns to wrap tacos or burgers.
The bottom line is, you want more fiber -- the part of a plant food that's harder to digest. It acts a bit like a scrubbing brush for the digestive system and can help lower LDL (the bad kind of cholesterol) and triglycerides, which are both risk factors for heart disease when too high.
"You can think of a processed grain as almost like a pre-digested food," Groppo said. "The food companies did all the processing that your body should have had to do."
Eating too many processed carbohydrates can raise blood sugar and lead to type 2 diabetes, which doubles your risk of cardiovascular disease. Some great options for reducing simple carbs include eating oatmeal instead of processed cereals, using brown rice instead of white or trying recipes with almond flour, as seen in the banana-almond muffin recipe below.
New kinds of noodles
Thanks to a variety of noodle alternatives, avoiding simple carbs doesn't have to mean giving up pasta-style dishes. Zucchini noodles, also called "zoodles," are available in most supermarkets or can be made at home with a spiralizer -- a kitchen gadget that cuts veggies into long, thin strips. Carrot spiral strips are also a tasty noodle replacement, Groppo said, "but you just want to be careful not to overcook them."
In fact, some recipes recommend baking zucchini or carrot spirals in the oven, rather than boiling them, to avoid making them too watery.
Thinly sliced zucchini or eggplant can also make a great substitute for lasagna noodles, Groppo said. For those who prefer a starchier mouth feel, she suggests trying replacements made from chickpeas or lentils. "These provide more energy and starch with the fiber," she said, "but they can be an excellent choice especially for kids, who have higher energy needs for growth and development."
For anyone looking to drastically cut carbs, she recommends shirataki noodles, made from a plant called konjac, a tuber-like root vegetable that grows in Southeast Asia. Also called "miracle noodles," these thin white noodles contain about 97% water and 3% glucomannan, a mostly non-digestible type of fiber, making them very low-calorie. Their flavor is also very mild, and they tend to absorb whatever spices or marinade are used in a dish.
"They're a bit more chewy, and they have a funny smell when you first open the package," Groppo said. "But when you boil them, that smell goes away."
For more heart-healthy substitutions, check out Groppo's webinar from the Stanford Diabetes Wellness Group.
Baked garbanzo beans
Recipe by Leah Groppo
Rinse and drain canned garbanzo beans, or boil them from dried.
Add 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of spices. Roll the beans to coat them in the olive oil. Bake for 45-60 minutes at 375 degrees until crispy all the way through. Serve as a snack or side dish.