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On Valentine’s Day, cook up some hearty food

Posted 2/11/2009

Macaroni and cheese and enchiladas may seem like high-fat, high-sodium indulgences. But thanks to a University of Nevada, Reno program, those concerned with heart health can still enjoy such tasty dishes.

"Many of these dishes are not inherently bad choices," said Joyce Woodson, Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. "It’s just the method of preparation or the choice of a couple ingredients that make them unhealthy."

While working as a dietician in community health centers early in her career, Woodson advised people who had recently been diagnosed with heart disease and other conditions.

"I came to realize how people felt about food and their food choices. They thought they wouldn’t be able to enjoy their favorite foods and family recipes anymore," she said. "That was a great loss to them. Food is a large part of people’s cultural heritage and they hate to lose those favorite foods."

So, Woodson and her colleagues at the University’s Cooperative Extension developed and tested recipes for some heart-healthy traditional and ethnic recipes in the nutrition lab at their Clark County office. She also developed six one-hour lessons that Cooperative Extension instructors take out to various community locations, such as churches, community centers and libraries. They teach participants how to adapt their own favorite foods to make them heart-healthy, as well as share the recipes developed in the Cooperative Extension nutrition lab.

Woodson started the program in 1998, going out to many of the African-American churches in southern Nevada. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for African-American males and females.

"Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a particular concern in this population," Woodson said. "It’s really a concern for many in the United States, despite race. That is why one of the lessons focuses on salt and sodium. We’ve also developed our own mix of herbs to use as a salt substitute. We give participants a sample of it and the recipe so that they can make their own."

Other lessons focus on topics such as reducing fat and sugar, deciphering food labels and making healthy choices at the supermarket, increasing fiber in the diet, and using spices and herbs. At the last class, participants bring in their own family dishes that they have adapted to be heart-healthy. They exchange recipes and all sit down to enjoy a "buffet for health and soul."

Woodson said that three months after taking the courses participants report a significant positive change in their food preparation and reduction of fat and sodium in the diets. In fact, in October the program was recognized as the national Nutrition Education for the Public (NEP) Award of Excellence winner. NEP is a subgroup of the American Dietetic Association. The curriculum is now also being used in Oregon, Washington, Missouri and Illinois.

The program’s success has led Cooperative Extension to expand the program. This month, the instructors will begin teaching the first bilingual Spanish-English classes. They’ve modified the curriculum and have some new lab-tested recipes designed for the Hispanic population in particular. Although the classes are currently only offered in southern Nevada, Nevadans across the state can call Woodson, 702-257-5508, or their local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office for heart-healthy tips. Check the Web site,, for some heart-healthy recipes.

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