Turkey and ham. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Your mom’s special stuffing and aunt’s tuna casserole. Oh, and don’t forget the potato salad.
You’ll be hard-pressed to enter the holiday season without eating — a lot. And though extremely delicious, all of these traditional family favorites also come with a hefty price tag of salt, sugar, and, of course, fat — none of which do much for heart health.
Considering the nature of the holiday food fest, the American Heart Association recently came up with a list of healthy heart hacks for holiday recipes, including tips like replacing salt with herbs and spices and using unsweetened applesauce instead of butter when baking.
Dr. Nicole Weinberg, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, does see consequences to holiday overindulgence. She said there’s an increase in emergency room visits for congestive heart failure starting with Thanksgiving, what she calls “the saltiest meal of the year.”
The rich, salty foods and holiday stress may also lead to increased blood pressure and more heart attacks.
“It kind of kicks off over Thanksgiving, and I do think the hospital admissions go up during the holiday time,” Weinberg said.
Despite the risks, holiday traditions may prove difficult to change.
“I think it’s a good concept to not necessarily throw off your game [simply] because it’s the holidays,” said Weinberg. “I kind of admire the quest. I just feel like it’s the hardest one of the year.”
Dr. Ethan A. Yalvac, a cardiologist at Hoag Hospital in California, said overeating doesn’t have to be one of our holiday traditions.
“We have this unfortunate cultural acceptance of weight gain and indulgence — this idea that we will let diet and exercise fall by the wayside in November and December, and then fight our way back to health in January,” Yalvac said. “This is a fallacy.”
Jessica Bennett, RD, clinical dietitian at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, said most holiday recipes use large amounts of butter, which is not heart healthy. Other recipes combine veggies with high-fat foods like meat and cheese.
“Vegetable casseroles are typically loaded with cheese and butter as well,” Bennett said. “There tends to be more consumption of sugar from sweets or added to recipes like sauces. Alcohol tends to be consumed more frequently and some find it hard to moderate.”
But following tips such as the AHA food swaps can be helpful to reduce the potential for heart issue flare-ups during the season.
- Fill up with healthy foods before holiday parties. “Plan out your concept so you’re not just starving yourself all day and then go to a party and gorge yourself silly,” Weinberg said.
- Toss the white rice. Bennett said brown rice or quinoa can be used instead of white rice in dishes.
- Up the veggies without the fat and starch. Zucchini or squash can be substituted for pasta and cauliflower for potatoes, said Bennett.
- Chew while you cook. “Chew sugar-free gum or chew on veggies while cooking to avoid eating a meal’s worth of calories while cooking,” Bennett said.
- Keep stress down. “Stress plays a role during the holidays too,” Bennett said. “Set a time limit on visitors. Take a walk. Enjoy a holiday movie or book, [or a] holiday coloring book. Light a comforting-smelling candle. Name three things you are grateful for. Holiday-themed puzzles are fun for the entire family.”
- Get creative with leftovers. “Share leftovers with family and friends,” said Bennett. “Use leftovers to jazz up a salad or make a soup and add more veggies. Lettuce wraps make great leftover tacos.”
- Use pineapple for baking. “The AHA article mentioned using unsweetened applesauce in baking,” said Yalvac. “I would add the ‘hack’ of substituting sugar in baking with pureed fresh pineapple. The pineapple is a natural source of sweetness — and the secret ingredient to the carrot cake my wife and I make every year.”
- Weigh yourself every day. “It is amazing what this one trick can do,” Yalvac said. “If you go for four days of partying and drinking and eating, you could end the weekend with 5 to 10 extra pounds. By weighing yourself every day, you establish a feedback loop between the food and drinks you consume and your weight. If you overdo it on Thanksgiving, and you get on the scale Friday morning to find you’ve gained 3 pounds, you’re going to hold back on that piece of pie Friday night.”
- Go for a walk after dinner. “Be sure to maintain exercise however you can get it in,” Yalvac said. “Just because you’re going to parties doesn’t mean you can’t keep moving and taking care of yourself.”