Thanksgiving dinner can make your heart beat faster with joy at the sight of all the delicious roasted turkey dishes, side dishes, and desserts.
But what does a feast – with all its fat, salt, meat, sugar and alcohol – do for your heart health?
Ask cardiologists what they eat on Thanksgiving and two camps will emerge. Some are intimidated by the traditional dinner and choose a different menu for their family.
“If you look at the purpose of the holidays, we’re really trying to celebrate life. And yet, we sit around with people and we poison each other. This is what we’re trying to do,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, tells TODAY.com. “Something we really need to fix.”
He doesn’t eat turkey or any animal proteins anymore, and makes squash stuffed with quinoa, beans and spices as his main dish at Thanksgiving.
But the other camp of cardiologists believes it’s important to enjoy the holiday with traditional foods.
“Maybe I’m not a typical cardiologist. I eat everything on Thanksgiving,” says Dr. Mark Eisenberg, a clinical cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
“If you deprive yourself on Thanksgiving, chances are the next day or the next, you’ll binge eat whatever you feel you missed. I say to most people: Just enjoy yourself.
It’s one day of the year, so Dr. Sean Heffron, a cardiologist at the Center for Cardiovascular Prevention at NYU Langone Health in New York, says he’s allowing himself some freedom.
“(But) don’t make it six weeks of the year, which a lot of people do from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, and it’s easy to do,” he warns.
There are also some important warnings for people with heart disease.
Here’s what cardiologists will eat this Thursday, and the foods and drinks they should avoid:
What cardiologists eat on Thanksgiving:
Vegetarian side dishes as a main course
Dr. Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at Summit Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, eats a mostly vegetarian diet, but she’ll eat a little turkey surrounded by several vegetarian side dishes like sweet potatoes and squash. Or vegetable salad.
“Portion control is huge because eating more than we need in any given situation, especially for one meal, tends to overload the system,” she says.
Instead of eating a big piece of turkey, it’s better to eat a lot of spinach or broccoli and a little ham on the side, Freeman advises. He loves green beans and potatoes, but urges people to avoid covering their favorite vegetables in oil and butter.
“Sometimes you see people get two pounds of turkey on their plate, and they have a piece of broccoli,” he points out. “It just blows my mind.”
Dr. Nika Goldberg, a cardiologist and clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tries to make her Thanksgiving dinner less carb-heavy by serving lots of salad and vegetables.
Foods from the air fryer
An air fryer is a great way to take fingerling potatoes and make them surprisingly crispy and delicious, Freeman says.
He also likes to fry fresh Brussels sprouts in an air fryer, then cover them with a balsamic glaze.
Fruit, cranberry bread or mini pastries for dessert
Fruit has been a popular choice for dessert among cardiologists. Goldberg recommends preparing a “beautifully colorful fruit salad.” She also likes to serve a variety of small pastries instead of large pies.
It’s also a great opportunity to make cranberry or banana bread that has simple, delicious and moist ingredients, Freeman adds. Some store-bought pancakes can also be passable because they’re “plant-based by mistake,” meaning they don’t contain milk, butter or cream, so check the ingredient list, he advises.
What cardiologists avoid eating on Thanksgiving:
Animal skin is usually very high in fat and calories, Freeman says. “I would never recommend turkey skin in general,” he points out.
Heffron also advises removing the skin and focusing on white meat breast cuts that contain less fat.
All cardiologists say they will skip butter because it contains animal fats and cholesterol. They urge people to look for ways to reduce or eliminate it in recipes.
“Butter is probably the worst thing people can eat,” warns Eisenberg.
“Butter is overused in many situations where you often don’t need much to get the meal to taste good,” Cheng adds.
Heffron says he modified his grandmother’s filling recipe so it didn’t contain butter, and it didn’t taste much different.
Heffron points out that traditional broth only adds fat and calories. He adds that drizzled olive oil would be better, along with sprinkling some nuts on the food to add some texture.
“You can make a delicious broth out of mushrooms and flour. But if you start adding heavy cream, milk, butter and eggs, that adds calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. “These are things that can lead to atherosclerosis in the future.”
Excessively salty foods
People with high blood pressure, heart disease or kidney disease should be careful about their salt intake, Eisenberg says.
Unfortunately, the typical Thanksgiving feast is full of salt, even plain turkey. Freeman points out that most store-bought turkeys are brine-brined for several days, meaning they are soaked in salt water to get the juices out — some are even injected with salt water for the same purpose.
He adds that Americans already eat more salt than the recommended amount each day, but on Thanksgiving, it can reach several times the amount they should eat in a day.
If you’re making things from scratch, add salt at the end of the cooking process, which often results in less salt added overall, Cheng advises. Skip the “fancy” coarse salt, which provides much more salt for the amount of taste you get, she adds.
Excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages or holiday drinks
Doctors say they may taste a little wine or abstain from alcohol altogether. Eisenberg generally cautions against having one or two drinks, but don’t overdo it.
“People should be careful because alcohol can raise blood pressure. It can also put people into abnormal heart rhythms,” he points out.
Freeman says traditional eggnog contains a lot of calories, fat and added sugar, so it’s best to limit that beverage during the holidays.
Healthy tips for Thanksgiving:
Here are more tips from cardiologists about taking care of your heart this holiday:
- Eat breakfast and lunch on Thanksgiving Day so you don’t arrive to dinner too hungry.
- Eat as healthy as possible in the days before and after your vacation.
- Be active: Walk before and after dinner, if possible. Play football with your family. Go skiing, if it’s a snowy day.
- Enjoy being with friends and family. “Social connections are very important,” Cheng says. “Positive psychosocial engagement is good for the heart in ways we don’t fully understand“.
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