It’s tough to maintain a heart-healthy diet and exercise regimen during the holiday season. After all, who has the willpower to count fat grams or calories when faced with an onslaught of eggnog, cookies and cheese balls? And who has time to exercise when there are gifts to wrap and parties to attend?
Despite the temptations and demands of the season, it is possible to enjoy the holidays while practicing healthy habits. Here are some suggestions:
It isn’t necessary to give up your favorite holiday treats, but don’t overindulge, says Dr. Vince Bufalino, a cardiologist and president of Midwest Heart Specialists in suburban Chicago.
“We don’t want to dissuade people from enjoying these things, but we ask them to just use moderation,” he says. “Taste, but don’t gorge yourself.”
A healthful diet can help control cholesterol levels and keep your heart healthy. Cut back on foods rich in saturated fat, such as butter, cheese and meat, which elevate artery-clogging “bad” cholesterol, and eat more vegetables, fruits and grains instead. No more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.
Kara Byrd, 35, of Alpharetta, Ga. (pop. 34,854), understands the importance of eating healthfully. A religion teacher and mother of three, Byrd was born with a hole in her heart, later developed a second one, and at 22 suffered a ruptured aneurysm in her heart. She pays attention to her diet because she wants to avoid more heart trouble. “I don’t want to have to go through a bypass someday,” she says.
When Byrd hosts her family’s Christmas dinner, she’ll serve low-fat foods and will replace butter with a low-fat spread. For snacks, she’ll serve vegetables and hummus.
Byrd is doing the right things. Planning ahead for the holidays is the first step toward avoiding weight gain, a primary risk factor for heart disease, says Riska Platt, a dietitian in Mount Sinai Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program in New York.
“If people start putting on two or three pounds every holiday season, before you know it they’re going to have 20 extra pounds,” she says.
Here are ways to eat healthfully during the holidays:
- Plan the occasions when you’ll allow yourself to indulge. If you love your aunt’s turkey and your grandmother’s pies, have turkey at your aunt’s house and enjoy a dessert at your grandmother’s.
- Walk around the buffet table before filling your plate so you’ll know what’s available and can make wise food choices.
- Avoid foods that are high in sodium, such as ham, pickles and olives. Sodium causes the body to retain water, which makes the heart work harder.
- Eat more low-fat fish and skinless chicken, and less red meat, Bufalino advises.
- Don’t overindulge in alcoholic beverages. Beer and wine are high in calories, and can increase your appetite.
Exercising regularly is one of the best things you can do for your heart. Exercise boosts “good” cholesterol, which acts as a vacuum in our arteries, cleaning up harmful “bad” cholesterol deposits. Exercise also strengthens the heart, lowers blood pressure, aids in weight control, and helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Bufalino recommends 30 minutes of daily exercise that’s rigorous enough to make you “get red in the cheeks and sweaty.” But even a few minutes is better than nothing.
Here are some ways to incorporate exercise into your holiday schedule:
- Make exercise a priority every day. Make it part of your regular routine, just like brushing your teeth.
- Park farther away and walk.
- Take the stairs.
- Take a brisk walk around the mall before you begin shopping.
- Gather the family for an after-dinner stroll to look at holiday decorations.
Vernita Morgan, 39, weighed 250 pounds and her cholesterol level was more than 300 when she decided to improve her health. In March, she began a five-day-a-week routine of cardiovascular exercise on a treadmill or stair machine, plus weightlifting and yoga, and she walks with friends during lunch breaks. Within seven months, her cholesterol level dropped to 209, and she lost some 50 pounds.
Morgan, a graduate student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, anticipates a challenge when she returns home to Louisiana for the holidays. She’ll face fried catfish and other not-so-healthy foods, but she plans to use moderation, allowing herself to indulge in occasional treats. When she visits friends and family, she’ll park farther away and walk to their homes. And when she returns to chilly Iowa after the holidays, she and her friends will continue their exercise routine, working out to exercise DVDs during lunch breaks.
If you don’t exercise regularly, talk to your doctor about developing an exercise regimen that’s right for you.
Another way to help keep your heart healthy is to be happy. Maintaining a positive outlook is good for your heart.
Unfortunately, for many people, the holidays can be a stressful or depressing time. It’s important to find ways to cope and be optimistic. Stress is associated with premature heart disease, and pessimistic people tend to be overweight, less active and more likely to have high blood pressure. Here are some ways to manage stress and feel more joy during the holiday season:
- Plan ahead. Avoid leaving everything to the last minute.
- Get together with loved ones. Connecting with people close to you can be a good stress-reducer during the holidays, says Dr. Fred Luskin, a psychologist at Stanford University. If you’re alone during the holiday season, volunteer to help someone less fortunate. Help deliver toys to needy children, for example.
- Laugh. It makes you feel good.
- Count your blessings. “So even if you have a lot of stress you remain aware of all the good you have, so you keep it in balance,” Luskin says.
- If you are overwhelmed by stress or sad feelings, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
Eating healthfully, exercising and maintaining a positive attitude are heart-healthy habits to practice year-round. “If you love your family, then you have no option but to take care of yourself, because if you don’t, you’re not going to be around for them,” Morgan says. “Taking care of you, that’s probably the best thing you can give your family over the holidays.”