In honor of National Heart Health Month this February, here’s a look at heart-healthy bulgur, millet, barley and quinoa—four fantastic options for adding variety to your cooking while also packing a nutritious punch.
An ancient grain hailing from the Middle East, bulgur has a chewy, satisfying texture and a sweet, nutty flavor that is often featured in tabbouleh, pilafs, or cereals. Though it sounds quite mysterious, bulgur is really just the remnants of traditional whole-wheat grains that have been steamed, dried, and crushed to minimize cooking time. However, unlike today’s hybridized and genetically manipulated forms of wheat, bulgur has a rich nutritional profile. In fact, it boasts a higher fiber content than brown rice, oats, or buckwheat—a whopping 18 grams per serving!
Bulgur is also a great source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, B6, and manganese, which aid healthy organ function. In addition, bulgur is a fantastic heart-healthy grain because it is low in sodium, which works to prevent high blood pressure and lower the risk for elevated levels of total and LDL cholesterol. Bulgur even alleviates inflammation, which has been linked to diabetes and heart disease. As an added benefit, bulgur is low in fat and calories, making it a superb weight-loss food.
Because bulgur is already partially cooked, it is easy to whip up for a quick yet nutritious meal. Use it as a filling addition to soups, toss it into a salad, or substitute bulgur in your morning oats—the versatility of this satisfying, hearty grain is endless.
This light, gluten-free grain may be small, but don’t let its size fool you—millet is a complete nutritional powerhouse. While people often dismiss millet as birdseed or animal fodder, its incredible health benefits beg to differ; in fact, it is one of the best choices for vegetarian eaters due to its high fiber and protein content.
This unique alternative to traditional grains is also rich in magnesium and niacin—heart-healthy minerals shown to reduce the risk for heart attack, lower high blood pressure, and slow the progression of cardiovascular disease. Millet also contains phytonutrients, which diminish the risk for hormone-related cancers and heart disease. Millet is an alkaline food—meaning it is more easily digestible than its modern wheat counterpart—which makes it ideal for those with gluten intolerance or sensitive stomachs.
This ancient Asian and African grain is small and round in appearance and can be used in soups, stir-fries, and pilafs; millet flour is best for baking breads and muffins.
Barley, originally cultivated in Ethiopia, has a satisfying, chewy consistency, a low-glycemic index, and amazing heart-healthy potential. It is less starchy than rice or pasta, and is chock full of dietary fiber—both soluble and insoluble—which work together to promote a healthy digestive tract, metabolize fats and carbohydrates, and lower cholesterol. In fact, according to a small study carried out by the USDA, people who added about two cups of barley to their daily diet reduced their cholesterol levels by an astounding 10%. In addition, the FDA also verified claims that barley is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Barley is additionally rich in calcium, potassium, and antioxidants, and even aids in stabilizing blood glucose levels.
Barley’s taste, texture, and appearance closely resemble brown rice. For that reason, it makes a great alternative for rice in risotto, serves as the perfect accompaniment to curry, or works as an easy-yet-hearty side dish that you can serve alongside vegetables, fish, or meat.
Ahh, quinoa. This trendy little grain made a big impression last year; so big, in fact, that 2013 was officially declared “The International Year of the Quinoa” by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Indeed, not only is this ancient grain a rich source of minerals and nutrients, it is also economically, culturally, and environmentally sustainable. And while quinoa is typically referred to as a grain, most people don’t know that quinoa is actually a type of seed! This ancient Inca staple is a nutritionally dense superfood, as it is high in calcium, contains metabolism-boosting Riboflavin, and is a rich, complete protein source that offers all the essential amino acids. Even better, quinoa is a heart-healthy, cholesterol-free option that can lower the risk for cardiovascular disease thanks to its winning combination of fiber, antioxidants, and plant protein.
Quinoa can be used in an endless amount of creative ways, from breakfast porridge, to muffins, to veggie burgers. If you haven’t already, hop on the quinoa bandwagon and introduce this exceptional little seed into your cooking.