Man and woman sitting at a large dinner table with salad.

For many people, the holidays are the most wonderful—but least heart-healthy—time of the year.

“Sometimes the food lurking on the party table feels like a festivity for our taste buds, but unfortunately, it may leave the heart handling extra unwanted saturated fats, cholesterol, and triglycerides—not exactly the gift your heart was looking for,” says Annessa Chumbley, R.D., an Indianapolis-based volunteer for the American Heart Association (AHA) Healthy for Good program.

But whether you’re preparing the feast or are a guest at the festivities, these tips will help you eat, drink, and be merry without clogging your arteries and piling on the heart-stressing pounds.

1. Slash Added Sugars

With all the cookies, cakes, and other sweet treats surrounding us at this time of year, it’s hard to avoid overindulging in foods with added sugars.

But consuming too much added sugars is associated with higher blood pressure—and untreated hypertension raises the risks of heart attack and stroke. The AHA recommends that women keep their intake of added sugars to 24 grams a day (about 6 teaspoons) and men to 36 grams (about 9 teaspoons). 

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So consider making—and adding healthy tweaks to—your own desserts, when possible. In most recipes, decreasing the sugar by up to 25 percent won’t usually change the taste much, says chef Leah Sarris, R.D., L.D.N., director of education and training at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute.

And look for recipes that incorporate fruit, which can sweeten a treat without as much need for additional sugars. You can also substitute ripe mashed banana for some of the sugar in your recipes—just use 2 tablespoons of banana for every 1 tablespoon of sugar called for.

Bonus: In addition to fiber, bananas contain both potassium and magnesium, two minerals that play a role in heart health.  


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2. Be Sodium-Savvy

A high sodium intake can increase blood pressure in people who have hypertension or are at risk for it, and those with some other conditions.

Take congestive heart failure, for instance. “For these patients, a single salty meal can lead to an ER visit and hospitalization due to fluid overload,” says cardiologist Sarah Samaan, M.D., a physician partner at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas, and author of “Best Practices for a Healthy Heart” (The Experiment, 2012). “We see that all the time, especially around the holidays.”  

The recommended upper daily limit for sodium is 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon of salt), according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The AHA says the ideal limit is 1,500 mg for most adults. But on average, Americans get more than 3,400 mg each day. 

And many foods that commonly appear at holiday meals—processed or cured meats, such as ham; brined products, like olives; salad dressings; condiments; canned veggies and soups; bouillon cubes; cheeses; crackers and chips; salted nuts—can be loaded with sodium.

To cut back, look for unsalted or low-sodium versions of these items. For instance, if a classic green bean casserole is a must on your menu, Sarris suggests trying Campbell’s Healthy Request Cream of Mushroom Soup as an ingredient, which contains less than half the sodium of the traditional soup.

In the case of vegetables, consider frozen—which typically contain no sodium at all—instead of canned. When using canned veggies or beans, drain and rinse them in a colander, which can remove up to 40 percent of the sodium.

You can also replace some of the salt you’d normally use for seasoning your savory recipes with herbs and spices. Chumbley’s favorite mix is half kosher salt (by volume, the coarser grains contain less sodium than other types of salt) and half a combination of lemon zest, freshly ground black pepper, and garlic powder.  

And if you’re planning on roast turkey for your festive meal, note that brines may be popular but are loaded with sodium—which gets absorbed into the meat. Instead, use plenty of herbs and spices to make your own marinade or rub, so you can control the salt. 

3. Harness the Power of Fiber

Getting sufficient fiber can help you maintain healthier blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and most Americans get only around half the recommended amount: 21 grams a day for women 50 and older, and 30 grams for men in that age range; 25 grams a day for women younger than 50 and 38 daily grams for men in that age range.

Keeping whole grains, such as brown rice, and whole-wheat breads and crackers, and fruits and veggies on your holiday menu is one way to ramp up your fiber intake over the holidays.

But you can also increase fiber in your seasonal baked goods: Opt for half and half—half whole-wheat and half white flour, that is.

“Whole grains are a great nutritional boost, and mixing the flours helps disguise the swap,” Chumbley says.

Bonus: The higher fiber content in whole-wheat flour will make your baked items heartier-tasting. “I think it’s actually more delicious,” she says.  

4. Go for the Greek

From dips and salad dressings to casseroles and cakes, many holiday recipes call for sour cream. In its full-fat version, sour cream contains 40 grams of fat per cup.

And 60 percent of that fat is saturated, the type that can increase the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood, according to the AHA.

Instead, Chumbley recommends substituting an equal amount of plain Greek yogurt. “Greek yogurt is the swap no one will be able to detect,” she says.

A cup of the 2 percent fat variety can pack five times the amount of protein of sour cream (23 grams) and about 4 to 4.5 grams of fat, some 2.5 grams of it saturated.

“Greek yogurt is super-strained plain yogurt, so it’s rich, creamy, and very versatile,” says Chumbley, who even uses it instead of whipped cream. Tip: Stir in just a bit of maple syrup or honey to sweeten it, along with a little vanilla or almond extract to add flavor.

5. Veg Out

Offer to take a plant-based side (or two) to a holiday dinner to make it easier to fill half your plate with vegetables that aren’t laden with butter or marshmallows.

One no-fail heart-healthy—and delicious—way to prepare vegetables is roasting, Chumbley says: Set the heat at 425° F to 450° F, lightly coat veggies of your choice (think asparagus, beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower) with olive oil or olive oil spray, and arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast until tender.

Other tasty options: Roasted parsnips topped with pomegranates and sage or roasted broccoli and freshly grated garlic sprinkled with lemon zest and Parmesan cheese. 

6. Swap Fish for Red Meat

Red meat contains more saturated fat than poultry, plant protein, and seafood.

So why not rethink that rib roast (or ham, steak, kielbasa, or other red meat) and prepare your own version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian custom in which seven kinds of seafood are served on Christmas Eve?

Aim to include fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and lake trout, which contain plenty of the omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Plus, according to a new study published in the journal The BMJ, people who eat diets rich in fish and shellfish containing these fats stay healthier as they age.

For the most benefit, prepare fish by poaching, baking, or grilling rather than frying. 

7. Choose Heart-Healthy Fats

Because butter, shortening, lard, and hard-stick margarine contain saturated fat, which can hike cholesterol, use heart-healthier vegetable oils, such as canola, corn, and olive, when preparing food.

As a rule of thumb, the AHA advises choosing oils with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and no partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats.

Keep in mind that all fats contain the same number of calories (119 per tablespoon), so use even healthy oils sparingly.

Tip: If you’re baking, you can substitute equal amounts of unsweetened applesauce for oil.  

8. Sip Smartly

Alcohol can add a surprising number of calories, especially if you’re sipping sugar- and-fat-laden seasonal favorites such as eggnog. Getting tipsy may also lead you to overdo it at the buffet table.

And too much alcohol can raise levels of triglycerides, increase your blood pressure, and raise the risks of serious issues such as stroke.

So indulge mindfully. Limit consumption in general to one drink a day for women and two for men.

And consider alcohol-free options. “There are plenty of ways to jazz up your drink without adding alcohol,” Chumbley says. For instance, sparkling seltzer water with cranberry or pomegranate juice makes for a festive, low-calorie drink.