We always love chatting with celebrity chef and Aramark partner Cat Cora. The first-ever female Iron Chef previously shared with us how she fell in love with cooking and about her love for the Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest ways of eating in the world.
We circled back with Cat during American Heart Month to dive deeper into how family, food, and heart health are all connected. What we learned is that a condition as prevalent as cardiovascular disease can often impact everyone in the extended family, and Cat is no exception. “My dad had diabetes and heart disease,” she shared. “The older generation of my family didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to create a healthy lifestyle like we do.” That’s why health and wellness is so important to Cat and a foundation for everything she does–for herself, her family and her restaurants.
Cat’s love of cooking and family run deep, and her lifestyle holds inspiration for anyone looking to live healthier. Read on for more of her story, plus the heart-healthy tips we learned from this celebrity chef.
It’s important to understand how food affects our bodies and how the right foods can help prevent certain diseases, including heart disease. When we’re young, this knowledge often takes shape in the kitchen with family. Indeed, this is where it all began for Cat, and those small lessons laid the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy cooking.
“I’ve been cooking heart-healthy meals since a very young age,” recalls Cat, who grew up in a Greek Orthodox household in Jackson, Mississippi. “We used extra virgin olive oil and whole foods like nuts, fruits, lean meats, and lots of fish.” She didn’t know it at the time, but she was learning about good fats and other heart-healthy ingredients.
Much of this came from her mother’s influence. Long before Greek yogurt exploded onto the grocery store scene, Cat’s mom was making it at home. “There’s a lot of flavor to be had in healthy, vitamin-packed foods. It was an everyday way of life for us. It was in the fabric of my growing-up,” explains Cat, whose passions fuel our joint concepts, OLILO (Mediterranean) and Wicked Eats (globally inspired street food).
Today, Cat and her wife Nicole make a conscious effort to instill healthy eating in their sons. Their long-term goal is that each of them will know how to cook healthy meals by the time they go off to college. Her hungry, growing boys already have a wide palate and are more than happy to enjoy the local, in-season foods Cat serves up at home. Chicken and veggie stir-fry and omega-3-rich salmon often grace the menu.
“It is very important to us that we pass that down to our kids,” says Cat. “I’ll get in and teach a lot of technical things, while Nicole loves to bake with them. We love any type of cooking that gets everyone involved.”
Getting Started: You don’t have to be a world-class chef to create nutritious, heart-healthy meals your family will love. Cat shared that it’s all about making a few smart choices:
- Shop smart. At the grocery store, look for foods that are Heart-Checked certified. This designation means a product meets the American Heart Association’s (AHA) requirements for being low in cholesterol, unhealthy fats and sodium, and contains beneficial nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, lean protein and dietary fiber.
- Grab the good fats. Unsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids help lower bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and they provide essential nutrients your body needs. Try eating fatty fish like salmon twice a week, snacking on a handful of unsalted nuts or seeds, or cooking with oils lower in saturated fats like olive and canola oil.
- The more colorful, the better. Add color to your meals through fruits and vegetables which pack a ton of important nutrients. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are proven to help lower the risk of developing serious health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, obesity and high blood pressure.
Here’s something you may not know about this Iron Chef: Her first stop wasn’t culinary school. She studied biology and exercise physiology in college. “At the time, cooking wasn’t something I thought I could make a career out of. I chose a field that I loved, and that was health and wellness.” Her studies gave her a great appreciation for the role of fitness in improving health and fighting disease.
Just as she was finishing her degree, the Food Network turned the cooking world on its head. In particular, the chefs-turned-TV personalities caught her attention. “My mom is the one who said, ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school? You’re a great cook and you know how to do this.’” A chance meeting with the legendary Julia Child at a book signing pointed Cat in the direction of The Culinary Institute of America. The rest is history.
Years later, Cat’s original foundation fuels the well-rounded lifestyle she and Nicole work so hard to model. That’s why physical activity is a must for their large, active family. Cat schedules daily runs like she would any appointment. The boys all play sports, and they also make time to exercise as a family, often outdoors. The boys choose the day’s activity, which makes it more fun and engaging.
“Whether it’s what we are putting in our bodies or exercising every day, our kids have really gotten on board with this,” explains Cat.
Getting Started: Whether you’re a busy mom trying to juggle your kids’ schedule or a restaurant chef always running a mile a minute, making time for exercise is critical. Physical activity is linked with better sleep, memory, balance and cognitive ability. It also lowers your risk of weight gain, chronic disease, dementia and depression. AHA recommends getting at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week and Cat has a few quick tips to help:
- Hit the mall. If it’s too cold to exercise outside or you have errands to tackle, hit the mall for extra steps.
- Walk and talk. Even if you’re glued to your phone for work calls, that doesn’t mean you have to be glued to your chair.
- Tune into fitness. Decide on one or two shows or podcasts that you only turn on when you’re exercising.
- Take the stairs. Even if it’s just a floor or two, always take the stairs when possible.
Cat and her family foster heart-healthy habits in several more ways. Their morning starts with a moment of meditation, when they set their intentions for the day. Evenings mean dinnertime as a family–no technology allowed–and each person says something he or she is grateful for. When she has a rare moment to herself, Cat may draw a relaxing bath. And in times of stress, she’s known to call Nicole or a trusted friend, or go for a short walk.
“Taking care of yourself is a holistic experience. When you take care of your body, mind and soul, you fulfill your wellness goals, as well as being your best self for you and your family.” she believes.
Getting Started: Good health includes getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness, and connecting with others. To help, try to keep Cat’s key tips in mind:
- Meditation can reduce blood pressure and help manage insomnia, depression and anxiety. A few minutes a day can make a difference.
- Practice thankfulness. The negative thoughts we all get sometimes can lead to depression which is directly linked to poor heart health, inflammation and a weaker immune system. Asking yourself questions like “What did you enjoy today?” and “What did your body do for you today?” are great ways to level set and add some perspective to our everyday hustle.
- Leave it for another day. If you’re feeling stressed, break the tension with a quick walk or a few deep breaths. If the situation isn’t urgent, sleep on it. You’ll gain perspective–and your reaction will be much calmer.
Feeling inspired? Follow in Cat’s footsteps [Website | Instagram] by trying something new today. Whether you sign up for a dance fitness class with a friend or mix some colorful berries into your morning oatmeal, have fun discovering the power of your daily actions in feeding your potential. Even small steps can lead to big changes that help keep your heart healthy for life.
For more tips on how to be well, move more and eat smart, check out these other heart-healthy tips from the AHA.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.