Get Heart Smart This Holiday Season

Ah, the holidays: that special time of year filled with family, friends, fun–and many chances to overeat. It’s easy to indulge in unhealthy foods during this season of celebration. But with a little planning, you can maintain heart-healthy eating habits and still enjoy yourself.

Ahsan Achtchi, D.O., interventional cardiologist at WellStar Medical Group Cardiovascular Medicine (shown above), recommends people keep their heart health at the forefront of their minds during the holidays.

“It’s a hectic time of year, but it’s really important we continue to think about what we’re putting in our bodies,” says Dr. Achtchi. “If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or heart failure, it’s especially critical you do your best to eat in moderation and avoid unhealthy fats and salt.”

Dr. Achtchi emphasized that for heart failure patients, even one high-salt meal can cause fluid retention. In patients with severe heart failure, too much fluid can make it difficult for their hearts to supply enough blood to vital organs. He recommends leaving out the salt when cooking and preparing dishes high in fiber, vitamins and protein and low in unhealthy fats—tips anyone can follow for good heart health.

Restraint is another heart-smart habit we can all adopt. “Sharing time together over a good meal is a highlight of holiday fun,” says Dr. Achtchi, “but don’t extend that one big meal into days of leftovers. Once you’ve enjoyed a holiday meal, get right back into your heart-healthy eating habits.” If you’re hosting, pack the leftovers for family and friends so you won’t be tempted, he suggests.

Dr. Achtchi says mindfulness is key when serving platters are being passed. “Choose wisely,” he advises. “For example, select a lean cut of turkey instead of ham, and fill your plate with nutritious, non-starchy vegetables. Limit the dressing and sweets! You can have a treat; just don’t overindulge.”

Overindulging can have serious consequences. According to the American Heart Association, statistically, more heart-related deaths occur around the winter holidays than any other time. That’s due to a phenomenon called holiday heart syndrome, according to Dr. Achtchi. Primarily caused by excessive alcohol consumption, holiday heart syndrome results in an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (afib). Afib can cause blood clots, stroke, heart failure and heart attacks.

Dr. Achtchi says the best way to prevent holiday heart syndrome is to use common sense. “Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women and two drinks for men,” he says. “And don’t drink every day. A cocktail, beer or glass of wine should be an occasional treat, not an everyday habit.” Finally, Dr. Achtchi recommends sticking to your exercise routine during the stressful, overscheduled holiday season. “Being active helps lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels while strengthening your heart, lungs, muscles and bones,” he notes. “Even a 30-minute brisk walk can help relieve tension and clear your mind, helping you feel better mentally and physically.”

A few tips for healthy cooking:

  • Make eggnog and hot chocolate healthier by using low-fat or skim milk. Avoid whipped cream and try toppings like grated cinnamon or nutmeg.
  • Compare nutrition labels and choose wisely. Breads and rolls, poultry and canned soups often have added sodium.
  • Try adding winter squash (roasted, baked or steamed), sweet potatoes (drizzled with maple syrup), Brussels sprouts, carrots and turnips to a meal. Seasonal, colorful fall vegetables are great additions to any menu.
  • Use herbs and spices, like rosemary and cloves, instead of salt or butter. They’ll add flavor to favorite dishes.
  • Rinse canned beans and veggies in a colander to remove excess sodium.
  • Choose the lighter parts of the turkey for the healthiest option. And, remember, don’t eat the skin.
  • Pay attention to portion size. Eat one serving of meat, which is 3 oz. or about the size of a deck of cards. Limit gravy to a tablespoon; and, remember, dressing is a side dish, not an entrée – limit your serving a quarter cup.

Source: American Heart Association

To learn more about Dr. Ahsan Achtchi or to schedule an appointment, please call WellStar North Fulton Cardiovascular Medicine at 770-410-4520.