3 Heart-Healthy Foods You Can Find On Almost Any Holiday Table, According To A Cardiologist

Ahh, the holidays... it's a time when we collectively disregard our diets and unabashedly eat holiday delights to our hearts' content. But what if we want to opt for healthier choices? Health Digest spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, John Hopkins-trained cardiologist and founder of Step One Foods, in an exclusive interview to learn how we can eat better to support our heart health during the most wonderful time of the year. 

"[The] foods we enjoy during the holidays are typically higher in calories, salt, sugar, and fat. And all of these macronutrients can wreak havoc with our cardiovascular health," says Dr. Klodas. "Salt increases blood pressure, saturated fats increase cholesterol, simple sugars worsen blood glucose control, [and] excess calories lead to weight gain," she explains. Hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, and obesity, which are associated with overconsumption of these foods, "are all potent risk factors for developing heart disease and experiencing out of the blue cardiovascular events," Dr. Klodas points out.

The extra alcohol we consume during the holidays doesn't help either, says Dr. Klodas. "Alcohol is a simple sugar — so it can worsen blood sugar control, but it's also a potent driver of arrhythmias," she explains, noting that these alcohol-induced heart rhythm abnormalities have been aptly named "holiday heart syndrome."

What your plate might be missing

While there's plenty of opportunity to indulge during the holiday season, Dr. Klodas points out that there's room — and need — for balance too. 

"As someone who developed Step One Foods, a company dedicated to helping people reduce their reliance on medication for conditions that can be improved with strategically formulated foods, I can tell you that the four main nutrients that are essential to cardiovascular health — but are missing in most peoples' diets — are whole food fiber, omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and plant sterols, [which are] natural plant components that interfere with cholesterol absorption," she says. "It's fortunate that some of the foods we enjoy this time of year are especially rich sources of these nutrients."

So, now we know what could be missing. But what should we load our plates with to get the most out of our holiday meals?

The heart-healthy holiday lineup

The first food we should load our plates with at Christmas dinner is cranberries, Klodas reveals. "These typically make their only appearance on our tables at this time of the year and that's a pity because cranberries are an excellent source of antioxidants — free radical fighting ninjas — that reduce inflammation, prevent activation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and even lower cancer risk."

Dr. Klodas also recommends focusing on nuts which are often plentiful during this time of year. "Nuts are more likely to be featured in recipes and as stand-alone foods during the holidays," Dr. Klodas points out. She adds, "Nuts are not only great sources of protein and fiber, they also supply high-quality fats, especially ALA, the only essential omega 3 fatty acid. ALA helps reduce inflammation, lowers triglyceride levels, and even small increases in intake have been shown to markedly reduce risk of cardiovascular events."

And last but not least, Dr. Klodas wants to make sure you don't skip the collard greens. She explains that because these foods are chock full of fiber and plant sterols, eating them can ho-ho-help lower cholesterol naturally.