Yes, it’s that tasty time of year again. It’s time for everyone to head home for the holidays, where we gather around the holiday dinner table and indulge in mouthwateringly good food and even better company (hopefully). But for people concerned about maintaining their heart health, the holidays can pose a big challenge.
The average American might consume more than 4,500 total calories and 229 grams of fat during a holiday gathering, with the typical holiday dinner alone — forget predinner snacks or drinks — carrying a whopping 3,000 calories, according to the Calorie Control Council.
Things to Beware of With Holiday Meals
Given how prevalent heart disease is — 1 in every 4 deaths in the United States are caused by heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — a lot of Americans might want to look closely at the heart-health value of what’s on their holiday dinner table.
“One of the things that comes to mind first when thinking about heart health and the holidays is that people who have already had heart failure, or maybe had a heart attack, should be very careful about their salt intake,” says Jo Ann Carson, PhD, professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee. “They should watch their sodium pretty closely, especially if they’re older. Some people can end up in the hospital as the result of overindulging in salt and sodium. It’s something people really need to keep in mind.”
For those looking for an accessible resource for healthy recipes and heart-healthy tips, Dr. Carson cites the Healthy for Good campaign from the American Heart Association. She says that people should focus on moderation and plan ahead when looking for ways to stay healthy.
“If I was concerned about heart health and I had a bunch of feasts coming up I would say ‘Okay, I know that I have Thanksgiving dinner and then I have a big Christmas Eve meal coming up and then we party on New Year’s Eve — maybe those are three times when I’ll just be more aware that I can indulge a little, but I won’t overindulge on any of the days in between,’” Carson adds. “I’d think, ‘Okay, maybe for leftovers, I’ll have some turkey, but I’m going to focus on more fresh fruit and not have all of the meat for my whole meal.’ I think you should try to limit any indulgence to those special occasions.”
Carson adds that people who are looking out for their heart health could also bring items to their holiday potlucks or relatives’ homes that they know they could eat a lot of and still have a healthy meal.
Healthy Recipes to Bring to Your Next Holiday Feast
Luckily, heart-healthy options for your holiday gathering are easy to make and just as delicious as some of your favorite holiday standards.
“With holidays like Thanksgiving, it’s important to find a balance where you can enjoy your favorites but find ways so that they’re still healthy, and in this case, heart-healthy,” says Kelly Kennedy, RD, nutritionist for Everyday Health.
Kennedy took a look at six fun and delicious, dietitian-approved, heart-healthy Thanksgiving recipes on Pinterest:
1. Green Bean Casserole
This quick, easy, and healthy take on the traditional green bean casserole takes about 50 minutes to make and features fresh green beans coated with a crispy onion topping. “The green bean casserole is a traditional dish at Thanksgiving and one that people look out for — and not one that I would typically recommend as heart healthy, in general.
“It’s usually high in sodium and high in unhealthy fats, and kind of ruins the vegetables that are in it, but this one uses fresh green beans and mushrooms and a great mushroom sauce,” Kennedy says, adding that olive oil can also be used in place of butter. “You’re also doing yourself and your heart a favor by switching from cream to milk.”
By making your own sauce you can control how much salt you add to this dish, Kennedy says. “Also, the fresh version for me is much more enjoyable and has better flavor than canned vegetables. The texture is nicer with fresh green beans,” she says.
2. Oven-Roasted Butternut Squash
If you’re looking for a healthy side dish, look no further than oven-roasted butternut squash. It’s a simple, heart-healthy option that offers a stress-free alternative for even the busiest of holiday chefs. “It’s a really simple recipe with a lot of flavor,” Kennedy says. “Butternut squash is high in vitamin C and it’s a great source of vitamin E as well as B vitamins. It’s also a great source of potassium.
“If you’re making it yourself, it’s nice that you can control how much salt you’re adding to it. Salt is such a huge concern for people, especially if they have high blood pressure.”
3. Vegan Spinach Dip
Looking for a spinach dip that’s delicious but without high-fat content like cheese and mayo? Then look no further. This dip uses tofu, raw cashew nuts, vinegar, and nutritional yeast to mimic the taste of the dinnertime staple minus the unhealthy original ingredients.
“This dish is very interesting, and now I really want to try it myself,” Kennedy says. “The nuts are a good source of protein, and are a great source of healthy fat. This would be more satisfying and more filling than a traditional spinach dip and is a healthier way of bringing you protein, but without all the fat. Also, as you know, the tofu and the nuts both have fiber, while spinach and onion are also good sources of fiber. This is also unique for appetizers in that it uses nutritional yeast, which is a good source of B vitamins, selenium, and zinc, as well.”
4. Cranberry Blueberry Crisp
Here’s a very tasty, dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegan-friendly dessert for this year’s holiday feast. “I like this because it has rich sources of antioxidants, which is really great. Everyone loves indulging in dessert and this is a way to make it a lot healthier, especially if you’re concerned about heart health,” Kennedy says.
“It’s nice and high in fiber and the recipe as a whole is pretty low in added sugars. Sugar is something that people forget about when they’re concerned about heart disease. They usually worry about sodium and unhealthy fats, but they tend to forget about the impact sugar can have on heart disease. You should really keep added sugars as low as possible. It’s really important when you have heart disease — you should always limit your risk.”
5. Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes
Here’s a heart-healthy alternative to your grandma’s traditional mashed potatoes. “I love this in that it’s low in carbs,” Kennedy says. “By using cauliflower instead of potatoes, you’re still getting vitamins and minerals and fiber. Again, here’s a chance for you to control the salt that you can have. This is nice and low in calories, too.”
6. Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Here’s another way to add some all-important greens to your holiday table. “The sweet potatoes have nice and rich flavor that tends to add sweetness naturally. This also uses spices and vinegar, which won’t increase the overall salt content of the dish,” Kennedy says, adding that you can replace garlic salt with garlic powder.