Six Minute Read

Your heart is nothing short of amazing. All day and all night, relentlessly, it beats away without a single conscious thought from you. It is, by far, the most important muscle in the body, the machine that keeps you alive.

Like other muscles, heart muscles need exercise. Maintaining a healthy heart demands more than just solid cardio training. It also means a healthy low-fat, low-sodium diet that includes foods like fish, vegetables and whole grains.

And so far, you’ve done pretty well. You exercise, you steer clear of high fat red meat and you try to have a veggie or two with every meal. Your body thanks you for it: your weight is down, you’re sleeping better and best of all, you know you’re staving off heart disease. Being heart-healthy isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it ….

A Season of Tempting Treats

… Or so you tell yourself as you imagine a delicious array of decidedly unhealthy foods you’ll encounter at the annual holiday buffet. Despite all your best intentions, resisting the siren song of these culinary treats—whipped mashed potatoes with pools of butter, prime rib juicy and glowing, green bean casserole with extra crunchy fried unions (your favorite!)—may prove nearly impossible.

And that doesn’t even take into account the tempting indulgences in the weeks leading up to the big holiday event! Starbucks Peppermint Mocha. The endless supply of cookies that pop up daily at the office. The neighbors and their famous peanut brittle, made from scratch. It’s enough to make even the most committed healthy-lifestyle acolyte ditch the lean chicken breast and Brussel sprouts in favor of utter food indulgence.

Ten Tips for Holiday Heart Health

Fortunately, with a little pre-planning you can enjoy your favorite holiday dishes while keeping on track with your heart health.

Need a little more inspiration?

“The average Thanksgiving dinner is 4,500 calories,” says Dr. Steven Appleby, Interventional Cardiology Specialist with MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center. Christmas Day is even worse—if you add together a plausible Christmas breakfast (a calorie-filled delight of pancakes, sausage and a glass of OJ), the average food-coma-inducing Christmas dinner, a sweet dessert and a couple of glasses of wine or champagne, you’re looking at nearly a 7,000-calorie day.

“One pound of weight gain is 3,500 calories,” Dr. Appleby adds.

We all can do the math.

But don’t be discouraged! Follow these ten tips and you won’t spend the weeks between New Year’s and spring break living on lettuce and celery sticks.

We’ll break these into two parts: what you can do ramping up to the season, and what you can do while you’re in the thick of it (besides wearing pants with an elastic waist band).

Pre-Season Planning

1. Maintain. If you’re on a diet, the holidays can be anything but joyous. Nearly everyone gains a pound or two—some experts say up to 75% of folks end up with a little more weight at the end of the season than when they started. That’s why many dieticians recommend that during the holiday season you should aim for maintaining your weight instead of actively trying to continue losing. Check your weight two or three times a week to make sure you’re staying on track.

2. Don’t skimp on exercise! Yes, everyone’s busy and it’s hard to maintain your regular work out schedule. Planning is key.

“If you know that you will be eating more than usual on a given day, such as an office party,” says Dr. Appleby, “Try to exercise one extra time that week to balance the increased calorie intake.”
Think of it as a gift you give yourself. Not only will exercise help burn off extra calories, but the dopamine that results from a workout is a definite stress-buster!

3. Practice willpower. Just like your heart, willpower is a muscle. In the weeks leading up to the official launch of the holiday season (generally considered Thanksgiving) practice willpower. How do you practice willpower to fight against the inevitable food cravings around the holidays?

  • Wait it out. Food cravings are like waves: they build, crest and disappear. If you give yourself even as little as five minutes, the urge to wolf down that slice of pecan pie may just disappear on its own.
  • Distract yourself. When you see something you feel like you simply must have, take a minute to think about what it is you are really craving. Is it the happy feeling you get when that lovely taste melts in your mouth? Think of something else that makes you just as happy—playing with your dog, listening to music. Do that instead of eating.
  • Picture yourself achieving your goal. Every time the image of a food you crave pops into your head, imagine yourself pushing it away, not out of guilt but because you genuinely don’t want or need it.

Practicing willpower for a few weeks before the holidays begin in earnest gets you used to conquering cravings—which comes in handy when all the festivities begin!

Happy (Heart-Healthy) Holidays!

So now that we’re in the thick of parties, celebrations and well-intentioned friends crushing us in a deluge of homemade treats, what do we do to make sure our best laid plans for heart health don’t go by the wayside? The rest of our 10 tips are sure to do the trick!

4. Heart-healthy recipe hacks. If you’re hosting a celebration, the American Heart Association has a website dedicated to recipes that reimagine holiday food favorites with alternative ingredients that are just as delicious but far better for your heart (and waistline!). If you’re tasked with bringing an appetizer or side dish to a holiday event, you’ll find lots of great options. And you’ll know at least ONE thing at the party will be healthy!

5. Start your holiday meal with a soup or salad. Research from Penn State shows that eating a salad before your main meal can reduce overall calorie intake by 12%. It’s also shown that people who started their meal with a broth-based soup such as minestrone or vegetable eat 20% less than those who skipped it. You may still eat the not-so-good-for-you foods, but you’ll eat less of them.

6. Put a physical barrier between you and the food. At parties, you’ll find tasty nibbles everywhere. A bowl of nuts on the counter. A cheese tray on the coffee table. Sometimes an entire appetizer table is set up and grazing is encouraged. Make sure you’re standing or sitting as far away as you can from tempting indulgences, with one or two other people between you and the treats. You’ll likely feel so awkward reaching across a couple of laps just to grab a handful of green and red M & Ms that you’ll decide you don’t really want them that badly after all.

7. Put it on a plate. Using a plate for snacks helps you keep track of what you’re consuming—a good practice that saves far more calories than mindless munching.

“And try to keep the plate small,” Dr. Appleby advises.

8. Go ahead and enjoy. But, like everything, in moderation! If you really can’t resist grandma’s Swedish Kringle, then don’t feel guilty about eating it. But just take a couple of bites, rather than finishing the entire pastry.

9. Eat slowly and savor. See number 8 above. Even if you only take a bite or two of a holiday favorite, if you eat it slowly, really tasting all the flavors, you’ll enjoy it just as much. This same guideline goes for the main meal. Take the time to absorb the favors, aroma and texture of each bite. You’ll feel satisfied and full, without feeling like you’ve deprived yourself.

10. Take a walk. The meal is finished, dessert has been enjoyed, family stories shared. A walk is the perfect way to round out a great event. A walk helps get rid of any “stuffed” feeling you have, plus burns a few calories in the process. Recruit friends and family for a post-dinner walk. You might find that you have a whole troop navigating the neighborhood with you!

Remember the reason for the season!

Holiday foods are wonderful and fabulous and irresistible—and so are friends and family. Focusing on them—not food—will give you inspiration to keep that amazing heart muscle healthy for the rest of your life.

Happy, Healthy Holidays!