There’s nothing like digging into a bowl of red beans and rice on a chilly Monday night or the first bite of homemade biscuits and gravy on Sunday morning. Traditional Southern cooking is celebrated for being hearty and flavorful but unfortunately not for being healthy. The ingredients used to create popular dishes like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese or buttermilk biscuits are often high in fat, sodium and cholesterol, making them anything but heart healthy.
For those of us who live in the South or enjoy Southern cooking either at home or when going out to eat, this is something we should pay attention to. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that individuals who consume a Southern diet and have a history of heart disease in their families are more likely to die than those who follow a Mediterranean diet. The researchers in this study defined a traditional American Southern diet as high in fried foods, added fats, processed meat, and beverages with added sugar.
Not only that, but according to the American Heart Association, over 33% of New Orleans adults have high blood pressure and over 39% have high cholesterol. This means that we should all make an effort to be mindful about the amount of sodium, cholesterol, and fat we are consuming in our current diets regardless of whether we have a history of heart disease in our families.
The good news is that a few very simple swaps in the kitchen can put you back on the path to enjoying your favorite traditional Southern dishes while still being kind to your heart. Below, we’ve outlined some basic changes to help Southern food lovers become more heart smart.
Red Beans and Rice
You can expect to get upwards of 500 calories out of one cup of Louisiana red beans and rice with sausage, along with 20 grams of fat and 600 milligrams of sodium. Rice and beans aren’t the problem, as the basics of this dish are essentially healthy. It’s the extras that add up. Here are the swaps you can make to lighten up this New Orleans favorite.
- Skip the traditional andouille sausage and use turkey or chicken sausage instead. Look for any low-fat chicken or turkey sausage that has no added nitrates, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease. If you’re going to the supermarket, here are some recommendations from Ochsner registered dietician Molly Kimball on what to look for.
- One easy way to cut down the sodium in this dish is to buy dried beans, which allows you to control the amount of sodium that goes into the dish. Dry beans are also a better value, as you can get more beans per package than what you’ll find in a can. If you’re in a hurry, opt for the low-sodium canned variety.
- Finally, swap white rice with brown rice which is higher in fiber, vitamins and minerals than its more processed friend. Fiber has been shown to help reduce cholesterol while lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease.
🍴EXPLORE: Vegan Creole red beans and rice recipe.
One filet of fried catfish has about 200 calories and 12 grams of fat, half of which is saturated. Plus, it packs more than 240 milligrams of sodium and 140 milligrams of cholesterol. However, you don’t need to cut catfish loose entirely — here are the swaps seasoned cooks should know:
- Slash the fat in this dish by baking catfish instead of frying. Baking foods will not add any additional calories to your dish, and consuming fried foods can put you at risk for developing both heart disease as well as diabetes. One additional bonus to making baked fish is the clean-up is much easier if you are preparing it at home!
- Cornbread batter may be the traditional coating but try subbing in a lighter panko crust to save on fat and sodium.
Biscuits and Gravy
Biscuits and gravy is one of the most popular breakfast dishes associated with Southern cooking. This hearty staple was designed to be filling in order to keep hungry workers full all morning, so it’s no surprise that the recipe is packed with fat and calories.
In a typical order, one biscuit will set you back more than 400 calories and almost 24 grams of fat. To lighten the load, we recommend the following substitutions:
- If you’re baking the biscuits at home, omit the sugar from the biscuit recipe. Not only will your heart and waistline not miss it, the recipe will be the same without it too.
- When preparing the dough, substitute whole wheat flour for white flour. Whole wheat flour is healthier than white processed flour for the same reasons we mentioned above. It’s higher in fiber, vitamins and minerals as it has not been refined, and fiber has been shown to help lower cholesterol.
- For the gravy, skip the fat and use a little almond milk instead. You can also forgo the sausage in favor of pork seasoning.
Just a half cup of collard greens cooked with ham hock will set you back about 165 calories and 6 grams of saturated fat. The good news is that collard greens themselves are quite good for you — they’re rich in potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. It’s just important to be mindful of what other ingredients you combine them with. We suggest:
- Boil your collard greens with low-sodium chicken broth instead of the ham hock broth to lower the sodium count.
- Try experimenting with red pepper flakes, apple cider vinegar, or garlic to add flavor.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to Southern cooking is that it’s meant to be enjoyed among people you care about. Next time you are preparing brunch or dinner in the style of the South, incorporating a few of these swaps into the prep work will help you serve the table with a lighter heart.
How Healthy Is Your Heart? Learn more at Ochsner.org/HeartMonth