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Doc whips up recipes for a healthier lifestyle

December 5, 2009
photo - Dr. Richard Collins splits his time between treating heart patients and helping them find healthier ways to cook. Photo by
Dr. Richard Collins splits his time between treating heart patients and helping them find healthier ways to cook. Photo by  

Chances are, when a celebrity chef throws veggies into a sizzling skillet on the Food Network, you won’t hear any talk about the possible carcinogenic free radicals or the loss of vitamins that can come with that hot oil bath.

Nor are you likely to get a recipe for a chocolate treat from your doctor to go with your prescription for cholesterol-lowering statins — unless your doctor is Richard E. Collins, aka “The Cooking Cardiologist.”

Armed with a heart-shaped spatula and a whisk on the end of a stethoscope, this Denver physician has made it his mission to fight heart disease without fighting human nature, or at least the human palate.

“My philosophy is, you don’t have to give up what you like to eat; just change your recipe,” said Collins, who splits his time between treating patients and devising ways to make healthful eating more palatable.

His blueberry almond turtles, for example, are made with blueberries, almonds and dark chocolate, all foods known for their nutrient-rich properties such as anti-oxidants.

The Mayo Clinic-trained cardiologist, who works at the South Denver Heart Center, has written two cookbooks, appeared on the “Live with Regis and Kelly” show, given some 500 cooking demonstrations, and become a national advocate for preventive medicine. Although he continues to spend about 80 percent of his time treating patients, one day each week is devoted to cooking demonstrations at his clinic.

Collins’ approach challenges conventions in both the culinary arts and medical worlds. Cooks tend to hold certain rules and techniques as sacred, even when there may be a more healthful way to do things. A chef, for example, might be reluctant to mess with a classic sauce, even though it might be loaded with fat and cholesterol.

Doctors, meanwhile, prescribe pills to deal with the consequences of poor diets, he said, but are seldom versed in how to help patients make dietary changes. Nutrition has only recently been added to the curriculum in medical schools, Collins said, and it remains basic at best.

Collins is self-taught in the kitchen, and he stumbled upon the culinary scene by accident.

“I grew up on Swanson TV dinners,” he said.

In 1993, he treated a 65-year-old who was on his third bypass. They agreed there must be a better way to help the heart. Collins learned of an innovative program by Dr. Dean Ornish, an internal medicine doctor renowned for his research into the effect of lifestyle changes on health markers. Collins, who worked in Omaha, Neb., at the time, conducted his own study on diet and heart disease that yielded impressive results. Problem was, participants in the study felt the diet was too restrictive to maintain.

So into the kitchen he ventured, and in his many years of dishing out nutritional tips, he’s been able to boil down volumes of medical literature into seven words of advice: Eat food. In smaller portions. Mostly plants.

While there are plenty of cookbooks and nutrition experts who tout the virtues of a wholesome diet, Collins is in the unique position to see its benefits play out in the exam room.

“We have patients who literally couldn’t walk across the room without popping a nitroglycerine and in one year didn’t have to use a single pill,” he said. One patient’s cholesterol dropped by 80 points.

Getting off medications, he said, is one of the great motivators for some people.

And, no matter how tasty a recipe, motivation is a must. Telling someone their lifestyle will kill them, or they won’t get to see their grandchildren grow up just doesn’t work.

“Something inside them has to turn on. People who quit smoking, they’ll tell you the date and hour inside their brain when that happened.”

• Beware of high heat. Getting a nonstick cooking pan too hot has been shown to release harmful gases from the chemicals used to make the nonstick coating, and cooking vegetables at high temperatures can destroy their nutrients. Extra virgin olive oil heated too high, for example, is worse than those evil trans fats. Charred food, such as meats cooked well-done on the grill, has been associated with cancer in some studies.

• Take diet trends with a grain of salt. Bookstores are brimming with books on diets. Any one of them might make good points, and they encourage people to be aware of what they eat, but good health is best achieved in the big picture. No one “super” food is magic: eat a variety of foods, especially fruits and veggies, in reasonable portions.

• Eat nothing “within 200 feet of a gas pump” — in other words, avoid the typical foods found in a gas station convenience store.
Source: Dr. Richard E. Collins

Almond Blueberry Turtles
• 4 ounces bittersweet dark chocolate
•1 cup fresh blueberries, sorted, washed and dried
•¼ cup slivered almonds
Melt chocolate in a double boiler or microwave. Mix berries into warm chocolate, stirring gently to coat them.
Cover a baking sheet with wax paper. Mound several slivered almonds on the sheet. Using two spoons, lift 6-8 berries in chocolate and place on top of the almonds. Shape each cluster. Repeat to create approximately 24 clusters. Chill for about 45 minutes.
Makes 24. Serving size: 1 cluster.
Calories: 35, Total Fat: 2 grams, Saturated Fat: 1 gram, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Sodium: 1 mg, Total Carbohydrate: 4 grams, Dietary Fiber: 1 gram, Sugars: 3 grams, Protein: 1 gram

Spicy Cherry Salsa
•1 10-ounce package (2 cups) frozen pitted cherries (not in syrup).
•1/2 cup dried cherries
•1/2 cup cider vinegar
•1/3 cup cherry juice
•2 cloves garlic, crushed
•1 tablespoon agave
•1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
•1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
•1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
•1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
•1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine pitted cherries, dried cherries, vinegar, cherry juice, garlic, agave, ginger, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon and cayenne in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool slightly. Transfer to a blender, reserving ¼ cup. Cover the lid with a kitchen towel. Holding lid securely in place, blend until smooth. (Use caution when blending hot liquids.) Transfer the ketchup to a small bowl. Add ¼ cup reserved cherries.
Makes 1 1/3 cups
NUTRITION INFORMATION: Per tablespoon: Calories: 25,  Total Fat: 0 grams, Saturated Fat: 0 grams, Cholesterol: 0 mg,  Sodium: 1 mg, Total Carbohydrate: 6 grams,  Dietary Fiber: 1 gram, Sugars: 5 grams, Protein: 0 grams.

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