Holiday Heart Health: Maintaining a Healthy Diet

Heart-healthy diet during the holidays
‘Tis the holiday season! It’s heartwarming just thinking about parties and gatherings with friends and family, sharing meals and laughter. As a dietitian, I often hear from my patients that they experience “set-backs” with their healthy eating during the holidays because their meals tend to be “too heavy” with a lot of fatty foods, salty foods, and sweets. Following a heart healthy diet over the holidays doesn’t require you to avoid parties or eat bland foods. Here are some tips for keeping our holiday meals healthy for the heart, while still enjoyable to the taste.
But first, what is a Heart Healthy Diet?
The heart healthy diet emphasizes eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains, but limiting salt and saturated fat.
Just like any other day during the year when you try to eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day, your holidays are no exception. Vegetables and fruits are nutrient-dense because they are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Red, orange, yellow, dark green, blue, or purple vegetables and fruits are especially good for your health. Examples of these colorful vegetables include all leafy greens, asparagus, brussels sprout, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, green beans, bell peppers, tomato, zucchini, and eggplant. Some examples of fruits include apples, berries, oranges, grapes, and peaches, just to name a few.
You can further increase your fiber intake by including whole grains, beans, nuts, and legumes in your daily meals.
An important component of the heart healthy diet is to moderate sodium intake. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium in a day, which is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. Excess sodium intake increases your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and kidney disease. Reduce or avoid adding salt to your cooking is a great start, but sodium can sneak up on you in a lot of foods. High sodium foods usually come from canned foods and soups, packaged foods, cured meats, cold cuts, pickled products, and of course, heavily salted meals. If an ingredient comes in a can, jar, or package, it’s likely that it has been processed with added sodium. So check the Nutrition Facts label before you buy or use a product and pay attention to the sodium content per serving! Choose foods that have less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
In addition to being modest with your sodium intake, a heart healthy diet also limits foods high in saturated fat, such as fried food, cheeses, cream, and meats.

Heart Healthy Cooking Tips During the Holidays

Cooking Tip #1: Modify Your Favorite Family Recipes

  • Reduce the salt in your recipes by half. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of salt, try using ½ a teaspoon. Maybe next year, you can try adding ¼ of the salt to that recipe.
  • Replace high-sodium ingredients like canned or processed products with fresh ingredients or “low-sodium” products. Use fresh ingredients whenever possible. Replace canned vegetables with fresh or frozen vegetables. If your recipe calls for canned broth, buy canned broth that says “low sodium” or try diluting the broth.
  • Whenever possible, add a couple cups of vegetables (examples provided above) to your recipes and make your dishes colorful. You don’t need to eat a salad to make sure you get your vegetables for the day. Vegetables can be included in many types of dishes, like adding zucchini or artichoke on a pizza, or throwing in 2 cups of kale or spinach to your stew right before it’s done cooking.
  • Avoid adding salted meats or cream to your vegetable dish.
  • Use olive, canola, or avocado oil in place of butter, but be mindful of how much oil you add.
  • Swap out the heavy cream with reduced-fat milk (2%, 1%, or non-fat).

Cooking Tip #2: Use Sodium-Free Seasoning

  • Spice up your food with herbs and spices in place of salt. For example, fish goes well with paprika, basil, bay leaf, dill, pepper, or turmeric, while chicken dishes taste good with basil, cloves, rosemary, parsley, sage, or thyme. Still follow Cooking Tip #1, adding as little salt as possible.
  • Be careful with pre-packaged spice mixes because they often contain salt. Again, read the Nutrition Facts label before purchasing spice mixes.
  • Perk up the flavors of your dishes by adding citrus juice, garlic, ginger, scallion, onion, or vinegar.

Heart Healthy Eating Tips at Parties

Healthy Eating Tip #1: Eat Before the Parties

  • To keep you from feeling hungry and make “un-mindful” food choices, eat a small nutrient-dense low-calorie meal or snack like a spinach salad topped with roasted almond slices before the party. This tip may help you make healthier food choices during the party. 

Healthy Eating Tip #2: Load Up on the Colorful Vegetables and Fruits

  • When you are at a party and putting food on your plate, make your plate colorful by filling at least half of your plate with colorful vegetables and fruits (listed above). Then lightly fill the other half of your plate with protein foods, carbohydrate, and dessert.

Healthy Eating Tip #3: Bring a Vegetable Dish to the Party

  • Prepare a heart healthy vegetable dish, whether it’s a salad or roasted seasonal vegetables, to share with the party. That way you will always have something to fill half of your plate.

Healthy Eating Tip #4: Hydrate with Water

  • Water is the best choice for hydration. If you need more flavors to your water, try adding some fresh citrus or cucumber to make your water more exciting.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, the American Heart Association recommends less than two drinks per day for men and less than one drink per day for women. Choose no-calorie or low-calorie options for sodas and juices if they are available.

Healthy Eating Tip #5: Eat Only If You Are Hungry

  • Remind yourself to only eat when you are hungry. That’s why I have Healthy Eating Tip #1 above – it’ll keep your hunger level low while nourishing you with low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods.
  • Try to focus on conversations and holiday activities instead of the food.
The bottom line is, enjoy your favorite foods in moderation and spending time with your loved ones. For heart healthy holiday recipes, visit the American Heart Association website, and go to the “Holiday” recipes section.
Happy Holidays!
Article written by Claire Luo, Banner University Medical Center - Tucson Dietician