Thanksgiving dinner can make your heart beat faster with delight at the sight of all the delicious turkey roasts, side dishes, and desserts.
But what does the feast – with all its fat, salt, meat, sugar and alcohol – actually do to your heart health?
Ask cardiologists what they eat for Thanksgiving and two camps emerge. Some are horrified by the traditional dinner and choose a different menu for their own family.
“If you look at the purpose of the holidays, we’re really trying to celebrate life. And yet we sit with people and poison each other. This is something we really need to address,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, told TODAY.com.
He no longer eats turkey or animal protein, instead making squash stuffed with quinoa, beans and spices as his main dish for Thanksgiving.
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But the other camp of cardiologists believes it’s important to enjoy the holidays along with your traditional foods.
“I’m probably not a typical cardiologist. I eat everything for Thanksgiving,” says Dr. Marc Eisenberg, a clinical cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
“If you deprive yourself on Thanksgiving, then probably the next day or two after that you’re just going to binge eat whatever you feel like you missed out on. I tell most people: have fun.
That’s one day a year, so Dr. Sean Heffron, a cardiologist at the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at NYU Langone Health in New York, says he gives himself some freedom.
“(But) don’t make it six weeks a year, which a lot of people do from Thanksgiving until New Year’s and it’s easy to do,” he cautions.
Team USA shares their favorite side dishes that grace their Thanksgiving tables.
There are also some important warnings for people with heart disease.
Here’s what cardiologists will eat this Thursday, plus the foods and drinks they’ll avoid:
What Cardiologists Eat for Thanksgiving:
Plant-based side dishes as a main dish
Dr. Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, eats a mostly plant-based diet, but she will eat a little turkey surrounded by lots of vegetable side dishes like sweet potatoes, butternut squash. or green salad.
“Portion control is huge because eating beyond what we need in a given situation, especially for a meal, tends to overload the system,” she says.
Instead of having a giant piece of turkey, it’s better to have lots of spinach or broccoli and a little meat 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 take 2 pounds of turkey on their plate and they have like a piece of broccoli,” he notes. “It blows my mind.”
Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and clinical associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tries to make her Thanksgiving dinner less carb-heavy by serving lots of salad and vegetables.
Air Fryer Foods
An air fryer is a great way to take fingerling potatoes and make them crispy and surprisingly flavorful, Freeman says.
He also likes to crisp up fresh Brussels sprouts in an air fryer, then top them with a balsamic vinegar glaze.
Fruit, cranberry bread or a mini pastry for dessert
Fruit was a popular dessert option among cardiologists. Goldberg advises making “a beautifully colorful fruit salad.” She also likes to serve an assortment of mini pastries rather than large pies.
It’s also a great opportunity to make cranberry or banana breads with simple ingredients that are delicious and moist, Freeman adds. Some store-bought tarts can also work because they’re “accidentally plant-based,” meaning they don’t contain milk, butter or cream, so check the ingredient list, he advises.
North Carolina firefighters held a frying safety protest today in celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday.
What Cardiologists Avoid Eating on Thanksgiving:
An animal’s skin is usually very high in fat and calories, says Freeman. “I would never recommend turkey skin in general,” he notes.
Heffron also recommends removing the skin and favoring white meat breast cuts, which are less fatty.
All the cardiologists say they would avoid butter because of all the animal fat and cholesterol it contains. 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 used in excess in many situations where often not as much is needed to achieve the quality taste of the meal,” adds Cheng.
Heffron says he modified his grandmother’s stuffing recipe to not include butter, and it doesn’t taste that different.
Traditional sauce is simply added fat and calories, Heffron notes. A drizzle of olive oil might be better, as well as a few nuts sprinkled on top of the food to add a little texture, he adds.
“You can make a delicious sauce with mushrooms and flour. But if you start adding heavy cream, milk, butter, and eggs…that really adds up to a load of calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol,” Freeman warns. “These are things that can potentially lead to atherosclerosis in the future.”
Foods too salty
People with high blood pressure, heart disease or kidney disease should be careful with their salt intake, says Eisenberg.
Unfortunately, the typical Thanksgiving feast is loaded with salt, even with plain turkey meat. Most store-bought turkeys have been brined for days, meaning they are soaked in salt water to make them juicy. Some are even injected with salt water for the same purpose, Freeman points out.
Americans already consume more salt than recommended each day, but on Thanksgiving, that can be several times the amount they should eat per day, he adds.
If you’re making things from scratch, add salt at the very end of the cooking process, which often results in less salt overall, Cheng advises. Avoid “refined” coarse salt, which provides a much greater volume of salt for the amount of flavor you get, she adds.
Excess alcohol or holiday drinks
Doctors say they can just try a little wine or just avoid alcohol altogether. One to two drinks is usually enough, but don’t overdo it, warns Eisenberg.
“People need to be careful because alcohol can increase blood pressure; it can also lead to abnormal heart rhythms,” he notes.
Traditional eggnog is high in calories, fat and added sugar, so it’s best to limit this holiday drink, Freeman says.
Tips for a Heart-Healthy Thanksgiving:
Here are more tips from cardiologists for taking care of your heart this holiday:
- Eat breakfast and lunch on Thanksgiving so you don’t arrive at dinner extremely hungry.
- Eat as healthily as possible in the days before and after the vacation.
- Be active: take a walk before and after dinner, if possible. Play football with your family. Go skiing, if it’s a snow day.
- Enjoy being with your friends and family. “Social connections are incredibly important,” Cheng says. “Positive psychosocial engagement is good for the heart in ways we don’t fully understand..”
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