a table filled with a variety of hummus and other dips, with pita bread and vegetables

10 Heart-Healthy Foods to Add to Your Holiday Menu

By Corinne O’Keefe Osborn
December 17, 2021

Even if you’ve been sticking to a heart-healthy diet all year, the holiday season is notoriously challenging. Festive cookie swaps, candy bowls, and cocktails can temp even the most determined among us. If you find yourself wondering whether it’s even possible to eat healthfully during the holiday season, then this article is for you.

Research shows that a diet high in processed foods, refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and red meat is a major factor in the development of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. On the other hand, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, and legumes benefits the heart.

Fortunately, many of these heart-healthy foods will fit seamlessly into your holiday menu. Through a combination of portion control and smart food choices, you can maintain a heart-healthy diet without missing out on the traditions you love.

Heart-Healthy Appetizers

Holiday appetizers are among the worst dietary offenders. Often smothered in cheese, fried in oil, or piled onto salty crackers, appetizers tend to be among the unhealthiest treats of the season. Foods high in saturated fats, like full-fat cheese, can increase your ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, while salty foods can cause an increase in blood pressure. What’s worse is that we often lose track of how much of them we’ve eaten. Avoid the appetizer trap by bringing your own heart-healthy option.

1. Tomatoes

Consider a fresh tomato bruschetta served on slices of whole grain toast. Tomatoes are filled with heart-healthy potassium and powerful antioxidants. Tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene, which may help lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and lower heart attack risk. Drizzle your bruschetta with olive oil, a healthy fat (in moderation) that may help lower your total cholesterol levels, and balsamic vinegar, which may help prevent clogged arteries.

2. Low-fat Yogurt

Make a delicious vegetable dip with low-fat Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise. Cut up some broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots for dipping.

A recent large-scale study found that people who ate two or more servings of yogurt per week had a 20 percent reduction in major heart disease and stroke during the follow-up period. Women with high blood pressure who regularly consumed yogurt were 30 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack compared to those who didn’t.

3. Hummus

Pita bread and hummus also make for a tasty appetizer. Hummus is made from garbanzo beans, which are great for your gut. Research suggests that beans and other legumes can help lower blood pressure and inflammation, both of which are risk factors for heart disease. It also contains healthy fats like olive oil, which is a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.

Smart Snacking

Holiday gatherings can last for hours, and many hosts fill the house with snacks for people to munch on throughout the event. While your family members may be grabbing handfuls of M&Ms; and potato chips, you may want to consider sticking to one of many heart-healthy snack options.

4. Nuts and Seeds

A bowl of almonds or pistachios is sure to please both your taste buds and your arteries. According to the Mayo Clinic, people at risk of heart attack can decrease their risk by including nuts in their diet. Nuts help lower LDL cholesterol levels and could even lower your risk of developing a life-threatening blood clot.

Seeds are another smart option for holiday snacking. Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) are an in-season favorite that are tasty on their own, but can also be used as a crunchy addition to salads. Both nuts and seeds are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, and antioxidants, which work to fight cell damage from free radicals.

5. Dried Fruit

Dried fruit is a fiber-filled snack that can make an excellent alternative to candy over the holidays. Your local grocery store likely carries a wide variety of dried fruit, including apricots, mangoes, cranberries, raisins, and pineapple. If you’re looking for a potato-chip alternative, consider dried apple slices or plantain chips.

Dried fruit contains more fiber and antioxidants than fresh fruit. Fiber is an important ingredient in preventing obesity and heart disease. And people with diets rich in phenols (the antioxidant in dried fruit) have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. But, as with all good things, dried fruit should be consumed in moderation. While they do contain healthy calories, they also contain sugar, and it’s easier to quickly eat 30 raisins than it is to eat 30 grapes, meaning you could quickly overdo it.

Diet-Friendly Dinner Options

If you’re planning a big meal, you can make a few smart food choices to keep it heart-healthy for yourself and your loved ones.

6. Turkey and Other Lean Proteins

The traditional Thanksgiving staple is an excellent lean protein for people concerned about heart health and is a healthier option than beef, lamb or other red meats. (And yes, pork does count as a red meat, too.)

In addition, you can feel free to serve other types of poultry, seafood, and soy, says Staci Gulbin, a registered dietitian with Lighttrack Nutrition in Denver, CO. She also suggests “plant-based proteins like nuts, avocado, or beans that contain gut-friendly fiber and antioxidants.”

Poultry has about half the saturated fat of red meat when prepared properly. When compared to intake of healthy fats, like those found in olive oil and nuts, intake of saturated fats does increase heart attack risk. So remember to remove the turkey skin and fatty pieces before serving. When it comes to choosing your piece, don’t stress too much. While dark meat often gets a bad rap, it’s only slightly higher in calories than white meat and it’s richer in nutrients.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are another heart-healthy winter staple. Orange and purple sweet potatoes are a great source of antioxidants, and they may help lower cholesterol. Sweet potatoes can be prepared in a variety of delicious ways, including as an alternative to traditional mashed potatoes.

Plus, they offer immune support. “One cup of sweet potatoes provides you with almost half the daily recommended amount of vitamin C,” says Trista Best, a registered dietitian from Dalton, Georgia.

8. Leafy Greens and Other Green Veggies

Leafy greens like kale, collard greens, and spinach are powerhouses of vitamins and antioxidants. Plus, studies have found that a diet rich in leafy green vegetables can significantly lower risk of heart disease. They are chock-full of vitamin K, which helps promote proper blood clotting and benefits your arteries.

You should also consider adding a variety of other green vegetables like asparagus, brussel sprouts, and broccoli to your meal. Just be sure to prepare them with heart health in mind. This means avoiding unnecessary calories and ‘bad’ fats by limiting your use of full-fat dairy. Consider replacing sour cream with Greek yogurt, butter with olive oil, and cheese with reduced-fat versions.

“Side items made without added fat through creams, sauces, and cooking methods should be a staple at any holiday table,” says Best. “It especially [benefits] those with heart and autoimmune conditions that would become exacerbated by inflammatory ingredients and saturated fat.”

Guilt-Free Desserts

No, you don’t need to skip the sweets over the holidays, but you definitely want to watch out for traditional desserts that are full of saturated fats and added sugars.

9. Apple Crisp

Everyone loves apples. This year, instead of a carb-heavy apple pie, consider a reduced-fat apple crisp. Apples are super-nutritious. They’re packed with fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels, as well as antioxidants. In one study, researchers found that eating an apple a day really did keep the doctor away—it reduced heart attack deaths at nearly the same rate as taking a daily cholesterol medication did.

Apple crisp also contains oats. Oats are a healthful whole grain full of fiber and antioxidants. They have been shown to make people feel full faster, which helps prevent overeating. Remember, portion control is the key to a healthy holiday.

10. Peanut Butter Chocolate Cheesecake Dip

Some might argue that no flavors go together better than chocolate and peanut butter. The key to this heart-healthy recipe from the American Heart Association is a combination of fat-free and low-fat cream cheese. Rounding out this four-ingredient recipe is sodium-free peanut butter and chocolate-flavored liquid stevia. It’s indulgent without adding saturated fats and sugar. Plus, the peanut butter adds a filling, healthy protein source to the mix. Serve this dip on a platter surrounded by slices of heart-healthy fruits and veggies like apples, pears, celery, and carrots.

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