10 Tips from a UCSF cardiologist for a heart-healthy season

By Lauren Hammit

Rita Redberg, MD

The holidays can be a hectic time. A leading cardiologist has 10 tips for getting through the season feeling healthier and less stressed.

“For most of us, even if we’re healthy the rest of the year, holidays can really take a toll on our stress levels and diets,” says Rita Redberg, MD, director of UCSF Women’s Cardiovascular Services and author of numerous books, articles and scientific papers on heart-health and lifetime wellness.

“The average person gains 5 pounds over the holidays, which is hard on the heart,” Redberg adds. “That doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause, though. What’s important to remember, any time we’re trying to improve our health, is that even the smallest changes can have a big impact.”

A heart-healthy lifestyle includes reducing fat and salt in our diets; eating more fish, fruit and vegetables; maintaining our ideal weight and getting plenty of exercise, Redberg says. And she agrees that this can be tough to achieve during a busy holiday season.

So how does a cardiologist make it through December? Among her tips:

* If you have a packed holiday schedule, give the first gift to yourself: Splurge on a healthy treat like out-of-season berries for breakfast and try to do one healthy thing every day.
* Before a party, eat a high-protein snack, such as nonfat yogurt and a piece of fruit. The protein will give you sustainable energy and make it easier to pass up party foods that are high in fat and salt. The fruit will fill you up and help give you the vitamins you need.
* Instead of taking that first glass of wine or champagne, start with a glass of bubbly water, with a squeeze of lime. Many of us drink more alcohol (and calories) than we want because we start out thirsty and want something in our hand. Replace one of those drinks with water, and you’ve cut 100 or more calories from the evening.
* If you have the choice between olives and canapés or chips, go for the olives - they’re good for your heart, take longer to eat and give you clear evidence (with the pits) of how many you’ve eaten.
* Can’t resist chocolate? Don’t. Instead, look for dark chocolate with intense flavors and savor a small piece of it. If it keeps you from eating that whole box of milk chocolates, it’s done the trick.
* While shopping, instead of cramming into the elevator, take the stairs. Or pass up that parking space closest to the store and walk a little farther. Every step helps.
* For family meals, look for lean cuts of meat, such as flank steak, pork tenderloin, or chicken without the skin, and broil or grill them to reduce the fat.
* When serving potatoes, use yams or sweet potatoes instead to increase vitamins and minerals, and try using low-fat buttermilk instead of butter and cream in mashed potatoes.
* If you find your blood-pressure rising, take a few minutes for yourself.  Get a massage or give yourself time to relax in a bath at home.
* And finally, remember the spirit of the season. Whether we practice a religion or not, this is a time to pause, reflect on our priorities and spend time with people we love. These actions alone will help you create a lifetime of wellness.

Redberg says she generated the tips after years of seeing her cardiology patients struggle to maintain healthy lifestyles during the holidays, either because they felt more stressed during the holidays or because they simply had trouble eating well and exercising.

Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in the United States, but most of its effects can be prevented or delayed through small lifestyle changes, Redberg says. What’s most important during the holidays, is to avoid adding further stress to the season by trying to deprive yourself of foods you and your family love, she adds.

“Despite all of the fad diets out there, the current thinking on weight loss and management is not to deprive yourself of the foods you like, but to have them less often or in smaller portions,” Redberg says. “As long as your overall diet is moderate in fat and calories, you’ll still be able to fit in the foods you love.”

Redberg recently co-authored the “Betty Crocker Cookbook for Women, The Complete Guide to Women’s Health and Wellness at Every Stage of Life,” which focuses its 140 heart-healthy recipes on the simple changes women can make for a heart-healthy life.

She wrote the cookbook in response to the tremendous demand for personal health advice that goes beyond “eat well” and “get more exercise,” especially for women as they progress through the many biological and nutritional changes in their lives.

An outspoken leader in the field of cardiology, Redberg has dedicated her career to educating the physician community and patients on women’s unique risk factors for heart disease. She has spoken widely on the subject and also has written several books, including “Heart Healthy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Preventing and Healing Heart Disease.”

She is also widely recognized for her research into the potential value of interventions, especially exercise, to fend off heart disease in women.