New Zealanders' tendency to reach for takeaways and processed foods – along with other lifestyle factors – is part of the reason we have such a high rate of heart disease. It is our single biggest killer, claiming the lives of 6,700 New Zealanders a year, or one person every 90 minutes.
Those alarming statistics – along with the 170,000 Kiwis living with heart disease – are the driving force behind a new partnership between My Food Bag and the Heart Foundation.
Together they've created a range of recipes that align with the principles of a Mediterranean style of eating, long recognised for its heart-healthy benefits. Interest in the lifestyle began in the 1960s following the observation that coronary heart disease caused fewer deaths in countries such as Greece and Italy than in the US and Northern Europe.
The new recipes will be part of My Food Bag's 'My Choice' range and will be marked as heart-healthy, so customers perusing the coming week's 15 My Choice recipes have the confidence they're choosing easy-to-prepare meals good for the ticker.
Heart health is down to a number of factors, with lifestyle key for many people, says Heart Foundation Chief Advisor Food and Nutrition Dave Monro: "Things like activity levels, stress levels, whether someone smokes. Diet is a major factor and it's something we can influence to keep our hearts in the best possible condition."
He points out that although there is no single diet that is best for our heart health, the Mediterranean lifestyle has been extensively studied and shown to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The new My Food Bag range came about after research conducted by the food delivery service found an increasing number of customers eager for healthier options, particularly among those aged 50+.
"It's for people like my Mum," says My Food Bag co-founder and ambassador Nadia Lim. "People who like to eat as well as they can and exercise regularly. They like to keep healthy, well into their older years."
It's also for time-poor families or those seeking an easier way to prepare healthy home-cooked meals, with the correct portions of ingredients delivered along with the recipes. After a busy day, it often seems quicker and easier to pick up takeaways than go to the supermarket and cook a healthy meal at home, a behavioural pattern Lim has seen multiple times throughout her career as a dietician.
"What I've learnt is that people don't lack knowledge as to how to eat," she says. "The obstacles come when putting that knowledge into action."
Monro says My Food Bag and the Heart Foundation share a passion, not just for healthy food but the development of positive life skills such as cooking and preparing food together. That sense of community is a vital way to bring down stress levels and promote wellbeing, which naturally has heart benefits too.
"It's about enjoying food together," he says. "It connects family and friends, is part of our traditions. Essentially food is important for our wellbeing and our connection to one another."
Like the Mediterranean lifestyle, the new range is high in fresh local ingredients with dishes quick to prepare. There's a focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated healthy fats gleaned from salmon and fish, nuts and seeds, avocados and cold-pressed oils, along with a focus on nutrient-dense and antioxidant-rich vegetables, such as beetroot and dark leafy greens.
There are moderate amounts of low-fat dairy, eggs, seafood and chicken, with minimal consumption of lean red meat. Grains typically come from a variety of healthy sources including bulghur wheat, freekeh, quinoa and barley.
My Food Bag's new heart-healthy recipes include pan-fried salmon with roast pumpkin and fennel and a vegetarian winter nourish bowl with tahini maple dressing.
"There's a very small portion of red meat, a focus on smaller portions in general, and the inclusion of salmon for those healthy fats," says Lim. "We've added more flavour through herbs and spices as opposed to salt, as most Kiwis' sodium intake is well above what it should be. Most of that intake is from processed food which is why, if you cook meals yourself and cut down on takeaways, you're doing your health a huge favour."
Traditional Mediterranean dishes have been adapted to suit what's available here, with the addition of Omega-rich salmon along with tomatoes, capsicum, courgettes, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and broccoli.
Over time, other cuisines known for their heart-healthy attributes – such as those from Okinawa, Japan, and the Middle East – will be introduced to the range.
"The focus is on good quality ingredients in the overall meal rather than specific nutrients," adds Monro. "If you get the foods right, the nutrients take care of themselves. The other important thing about these recipes is that they're packed full of flavour, which shows you can maximise heart-healthy goodness without compromising on taste.
"We understand it can be a real challenge for New Zealanders to make healthy choices. The key is to make heart-healthy eating as convenient, exciting and delicious as possible. This will allow people to cook meals that are kind to your heart, delicious and appealing to the whole family."