My patient Ellen has been saving money wherever she can. She's still working, luckily. But she's finding that she's eating more, just because she's worried. Her weight, cholesterol and blood pressure are going up.

Ellen is not alone. Behavioral studies show that people use food as a reward and as comfort, even in good financial times. These days, many of my patients are concerned about cost before health when it comes to dinner.

Could eating good, flavor-rich, home-cooked food lower Ellen's health care costs -- and still taste like dinner?

Yes, it can.

What if you had high cholesterol and your doctor handed you this prescription:

Rx: One half cup well-flavored, truly delicious pinto beans daily

At a generous $2 per pound for dried beans, cooked lovingly with onion, garlic, oregano and a little salt and pepper, this prescription is still only 16 cents. It also lowers LDL cholesterol by 19 mg/dL, on average. Compare that with at least $2 per pill retail for rosuvastatin (Crestor, any dose), an effective cholesterol-lowering medication.

Or let's say you have high blood pressure and your doctor handed you this prescription:

Rx: One half cup of unsalted soy nuts, daily, any time. Flavor as desired.

A half cup of soy nuts lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure 9.9 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively, in a Harvard study of postmenopausal hypertensive women. The soy nuts cost about 80 cents per half cup. Contrast that with about $1.70 per pill for the lowest dose of ramipril (Altace), an effective ACE inhibitor.

I recommended that Ellen do two things: take a cooking class and use her social network -- both online and off -- to help her with accountability.

Why a cooking class? Because knowing a little about cooking is really fun! My cooking classes, even for medical students, have been like summer camp for adults. And cooking can save your life.

Transforming inexpensive lentils and root vegetables into a filling, fragrant, flavor-rich, health-saving soup may seem like a magic trick. But it's not. Recipes for health can be faster and easier, and taste better, than you thought.

Cooking also helps you absorb nutrients better from some foods. You get four times as much heart-protecting, prostate-protecting lycopene from a cooked tomato as from a raw one, for example.

And why social networks? Because they give you help when you ask. When you're trying to start new habits, you need help.

Your friends, real or virtual, can say, "Hey, is it soup yet?"

Why, yes it is. The recipe that follows is very low in calories but still filling enough for a meal. The lignans in the lentils lower cholesterol. The soup's low saturated fat content reduces heart disease risk, and appetite. Its Jamaican Jerk seasoning and dry white wine make the soup sing with spice and pleasure.

My patient Ellen still takes prescription medicine, by the way. But she's now looking at food as tasty, affordable, culinary medicine, too, including this Roasted Red Pepper, Wine and Red Lentil Soup.

Roasted Red Pepper, Wine and Red Lentil Soup

Makes 4 servings (1 1/2 cups each)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large organic carrots, thinly sliced

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

11/2 teaspoons Jamaican jerk seasoning

3/4 cup red lentils, such as Bob's Red Mill brand

1 cup dry white wine, such as Chenin Blanc or Chablis

1 cup water

2 cups packaged roasted red pepper soup, such as Pacific or Imagine brands

1/2 cup 2 percent Greek-style strained yogurt, such as Fage brand

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onion and jerk seasonings; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in lentils to coat with oil.

Stir in wine and water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 10 minutes.

Stir in soup; return to a boil.

Cover; simmer 15 minutes or until lentils and vegetables are tender. Ladle into shallow bowls; top with yogurt.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

261 calories per serving, 18 percent from fat; 5 grams total fat; 1.5 grams saturated fat; 1 gram polyunsaturated fat; 1 gram monounsaturated fat; 3 grams fiber; 31 grams carbohydrate: 11.5 grams sugar; 12 grams protein; 504 mg sodium; 128 mg calcium, 7.1 mg magnesium, 155.4 mg potassium

John La Puma, M.D., is a board-certified internist in Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-host of "Health Corner," airing on Lifetime TV every week.


Subscribe to Receive our Gourmet Recipes

Roasted Red Pepper, Wine and Red Lentil Soup - Recipes for Health

World-renowned chefs with an extraordinary passion for food share their passion on These chefs make great cooking easier than imagined. Each gourmet recipe features expert advice and an easy-to-make recipe. Exactly what you need to transform your home cooking from acceptable to delectable

© John La Puma