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Eat, drink and be heart healthy this holiday season

If you're not already convinced that eating sensibly can help prevent a heart attack, consider this: a new study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs just revealed that eating an unusually large or heavy meal can trigger one.

Holiday dinners are traditionally large and heavy on calories and fat. The average Christmas dinner, according to, often consists of more than 1,500 calories.To put this number in perspective, active adult females require approximately 2,000 calories per day and active adult males require approximately 2,500 to 2,800 calories daily.

Instead of packing three quarters to half of your daily calories into one meal and placing your heart at risk, you can cut down on portion sizes, sugar and fat, and still enjoy a scrumptious holiday spread. Here's how, with tips gleaned from LIVESTRONG.COM, the American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association and Melinda Johnson, MS RD, lecturer, Arizona State University and national spokesperson, American Dietetic Association.

When you're the guest:

While you don't get to choose the menu when you're the guest, you do get to choose what and how much you will eat.

  • Have a healthy snack or light meal before you leave home so you're not hungry when you arrive at the gathering.

  • Survey the food and select only what you really like--don't choose something just because it's there.

  • Avoid salty snacks like pretzels and chips.

  • Limit foods that contain trans fats, such as cakes, cookies, crackers, pastries and pies.

  • Don't feel obligated to eat everything on your plate.

  • Bring a heart-healthy dish that you and everyone else can enjoy.

  • If you're adhering to a specific diet, bring your own food.

When you're the host:

As the host you can prepare (or order) a traditional yet heart healthy meal from the get-go, and the food will be so delicious that no one will notice you've reduced the salt, sugar and fat.

  • Plan a menu that includes whole grains, brightly colored fruits, vegetables and lean meats.

  • If you're ordering any food items, request low salt, sugar and fat.

  • Don't snack on the food you're cooking.

  • Don't add salt (except when baking). People can add salt at the table, if they desire.

  • Add herbs, spices, garlic, onions, peppers and lemon or lime juice to enhance flavor.

  • Don't use mixes, or canned, frozen or "instant" products, that contain added salt or trans fat.

  • Use low-fat cooking methods--broiling, baking, roasting, stewing, microwaving and steaming.

  • Use canola, olive and soybean in recipes and for sautéing.

  • Make salad dressings with olive, walnut, flaxseed or pecan oil.

  • Thicken sauces with evaporated non-fat milk instead of whole milk, cream or butter.

  • Serve natural gravy--don't add flour, milk or cream.

  • Cut the sugar and butter in traditional recipes.

  • When baking, substitute pureed fruit like applesauce for oil for sugar.

Start some new traditions

Johnson says that modifying family traditions and starting new ones can be both fun and heart healthy. "Sometimes you discover you're making some foods just because your mother made them--and no one even likes them that much." Have fun substituting new, healthier dishes in their place.

For example, instead of that sweet potato casserole loaded with butter, brown sugar and marshmallows, try a sweet potato dish seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. Sweet potatoes are naturally very sweet--and healthy.

Find heart-healthy versions of holiday recipes online. Two of Johnson's favorite recipe Web sites are and because real cooks rate the recipes and add tips they've used to make the recipes better or healthier.

And if you don't already do so, Johnson suggests taking a walk or playing football to burn calories and have fun together before or after the meal.

Great tips for any occasion

Don't try to save calories by not eating anything until the festivities start. "You're so hungry that you overindulge," said Johnson. She suggests that you eat sensibly throughout the day as well as during the celebration.

Johnson also says you don't necessarily have to deprive yourself of your favorite foods. If they're not heart healthy, take small portions and savor every bite.

Avoid standing near food. Focus on socializing instead of eating or drinking. And drink water instead of alcohol, which contains lots of calories, has no nutritional value and lowers your inhibitions, which can lower your resolve watch what you eat.

Go over these healthy eating strategies prior to every gathering. When you keep in mind that your goal is to enjoy food without overindulging, you're more likely to do just that.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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