The cardiologist says: Eat without guilt over the holidays

The holiday season is all about excess: Whirlwind shopping, celebrations, abundant food… And just so you know, I hope to enjoy it all!

About that abundant food… My plan is to keep it in perspective.

After all, there is some good news: A study performed by the National Institutes of Health followed nearly 200 individuals over the holiday season and found that, on average, people gained only one pound over the months of November and December.  

So my advice is to enjoy the holidays. Enjoy the celebrations, spend time with the ones you love, and participate fully in your family traditions — guilt-free.

Having said that, I would ask you keep my advice in perspective as well. It’s not about abandoning every good habit you’ve built along the way! It’s about leveraging what you know so you can help yourself move through this time with maximum enjoyment and minimum collateral damage.

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How I approach this time of year is to stick with my exercise routine and modulate my eating. If I over-eat at a party, the next day I will go right back to my default healthy dietary pattern, often cutting back on some of the more calorie-dense components (like cheese and nuts). 

And no matter how bloated or tired I am the morning after the night before, I will start my day with my usual 5K run/walk. No excuses. End result?  I typically come out of the holiday season pretty much unscathed. 

This is what works for me. But I fully acknowledge that food traditions and eating occasions during the holidays (and the emotions that surround them) can be complicated and stressful — and dealing with food the way I do might not work for everyone. If my approach is easier said than done for you, consider reframing the way you think about food. 

Instead of thinking of foods as “good” or “bad,” for example, think about whether they are “nutritious” and “satisfying”. Labeling foods as good or bad often leads to guilt and shame and can eventually lead to disordered eating. So thinking about your diet more holistically can promote a healthier perspective.

Here are some other mindful practices that may help too:

Slow down. Surround yourself with some of your favorite people, sit down to eat, chew your food slowly and enjoy it. Eating more slowly has been shown to increase food enjoyment while helping us naturally eat less.

Consider your food choices. Make extra room on your plate for nutritious and satisfying options such as colorful fruits, vegetables, and food that’s spiced with seasonal flavors such as cloves, ginger, rosemary, and sage. For options that are less health-promoting, save room only for those that you find truly pleasurable. In other words, maximize the nutritional impact of the calories you’re consuming and don’t waste them on less healthy foods you don’t truly enjoy.

Make less go farther.  Consuming colder weather favorites such as cheese, chocolate, red wine, and even red meat is possible on a heart-healthy diet so long as portions are reasonable.

Skip the scale. Focus on health, not weight. After all, you’re in this to live a longer and healthier life. If you do that, the weight will take care of itself.

Clear your head.  Make sure to take time for yourself, every day.  It bears repeating that this time of the year can be stressful, and stress can make us less mindful about how we take care of ourselves and what we load up our plates with. Physical activity is a great way to de-stress, so if you can’t get your regular exercise routine in, squeeze in a quick walk as your release valve. Or add a meditation session. Even closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths can make all the difference in the world.

Finally, don’t beat yourself up when you overindulge. (Notice I said “when,” not “if!”  It’s going to happen to all of us.) Food effects are cumulative; you won’t erase weeks of healthy eating with one excessive holiday party. 

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Dr. Elizabeth Klodas MD, FACC

By Dr. Elizabeth Klodas MD, FACC

"Diet is a major driver of high cholesterol, but instead of changing the food, we prescribe medications. This never seemed logical to me.” Dr. Klodas has dedicated her career to preventive cardiology. Trained at Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, she is the founder and Chief Medical Officer for Step One Foods. Dr. Klodas is a nationally sought out speaker and has an active role at the American College of Cardiology. Her clinical interests include prevention of heart disease and non-invasive cardiac imaging and she has published dozens of scientific articles throughout her career. Dr. Klodas has been featured on CNN Health for her mission to change how heart disease is treated. An independent study performed at leading medical institutions affirmed the ability of Step One Foods to deliver measurable and meaningful cholesterol-reduction benefits in the real world. The results of the trial were presented at the 2018 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. Dr. Klodas has also authored a book for patients, "Slay the Giant: The Power of Prevention in Defeating Heart Disease," and served as founding Editor-in-Chief of the patient education effort of the American College of Cardiology. In addition to her practice and her duties at Step One Foods, she also serves as medical editor for webMD.