How to have heart-healthy holidays

UC Davis dietitian provides guidance for staying on track


The holidays often mean less healthful food, and more of it. This can be particularly difficult for those who are eating heart healthy and want to limit saturated fats and sodium in their diets.

It is possible to enjoy the holidays and eat healthy too.
It is possible to enjoy the holidays and eat healthy too.

Dietitian Marie Barone often guides UC Davis Health patients on how to make it through the holidays without compromising heart-health goals. Here are six tips she provides:

1. Be aware of portions. The amount you eat counts. Take your time and savor every bite, and you’ll be satisfied with less food.
2. Stay active. Even though time is limited during the holidays, carve out opportunities to move. Walking each day is a great option, especially with friends.
3. Put leftovers away. As soon as everyone is done eating, put food away. This prevents snacking after meals out of boredom or anxiety.
4. Pay attention to beverages. Many holiday beverages ― such as eggnog, punch, wine, mixed drinks and ciders ― are high in calories. Participate in the annual toast or have a small glass of wine with dinner, and then switch to water or diet drinks.
5. Eat breakfast and snacks. Skipping meals often leads to overeating later. Plan to have a light snack before holiday events.
6. Prioritize sleep. Everything is more manageable when you are rested. Plan for winding-down time of at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. You’ll fall asleep sooner and sleep more soundly, which is linked with how much and how often we eat.

Traditional holiday foods can be healthy

Many common holiday foods have heart-health benefits, according to Barone. She suggests exploring toppings and add-ins like low-sodium broths, olive oil, lowfat or nonfat Greek yogurt, unsalted nuts, fruits, veggies and spices. Thicken sauces with homemade vegetable puree instead of white flour and butter.

Brussels sprouts
Vegetables add texture and color to holiday meals as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals.

This holiday staple is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, organic substances thought to be effective in helping to prevent heart disease and stroke.

This holiday staple is usually high in fat and sodium, but there are ways to make stuffing healthier. Using a multigrain bread adds fiber, which can help reduce cholesterol. Replace the butter with vegetable broth to reduce saturated fat. You can increase the vitamin and mineral content by adding vegetables such as onions, peppers or carrots, or chopped fresh fruit. Use antioxidant-rich herbs such as sage and rosemary instead of added salt for flavoring.

Sweet potatoes
These are rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene and provide a lot of other vitamins, including A. B, C and E, along with calcium and potassium.

Veggies add fiber, vitamins and minerals. Carrots are especially rich in beta-carotene. Dark, leafy greens like spinach and Brussels sprouts are rich in vitamin C, beta-carotene and other antioxidants. Broccoli also has vitamins A, B6, riboflavin, folic acid, calcium and iron. Beware of high-fat dressings and sauces that are often added to holiday veggie recipes.

White potatoes
White potatoes are rich in vitamin C, fiber, and potassium, which is linked to lowering blood pressure and stroke risk. Instead of adding butter to mashed potatoes, use Greek yogurt or olive oil instead.

Healthier pumpkin pie

One of the most popular holiday treats — pumpkin pie — can be loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol. With just a few adjustments, everyone can enjoy this traditional dessert. Here is one of Barone's favorite alternatives.

Recipe for Best Light Pumpkin Pie

pumpkin pie
A few adjustments can lower the saturated fat in traditional pumpkin pie recipes.

Serves 8

1 cup ground ginger snaps (about 16 cookies)
16 ounce can of pumpkin puree
½ cup of egg whites (about 4)
½ cup of sugar
2 teaspooons of pumpkin pie spice (or your own combination of cinnamon, ginger and cloves)
12 ounce can of evaporated skim milk

Preheat oven to 350˚. Grind the cookies in a food processor. Lightly spray a 9” glass pie pan with vegetable cooking spray. Pat the cookie crumbs evenly into the pan. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl until smooth. Pour into the crust and bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool and slice into eight wedges. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

Source: UC Davis Health Preventive Cardiology Healthy Holiday Favorites

Additional resources

Some favorite recipes of patients and staff of our UC Davis Health Cardiac Rehabilitation Program have been compiled by the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program into a cookbook for everyone to enjoy. Take a look (PDF) for more ways to make your holidays delicious and healthy too.

Watch a video from our sports medicine team on how to be Busy But Fit with brief mini-workouts throughout the day. This is especially helpful when holiday commitments reduce time available for longer workouts.

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