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You’ve worked hard on your routine. Along with plenty of exercise and sleep, you plan your meals and eat a filling breakfast, nutritious lunch, healthy snacks and a sensible dinner.
But how do you stay on track during holidays and special occasions — from Thanksgiving and Christmas, to summer picnics and birthdays — and not lose the progress you’ve already made?
Heart health challenges
It’s easy to lose focus when you’re catching up with family and friends. Combine that with the rich foods often served at social events and you run the risk of overindulging.
For most people, weight gain is a big risk factor for heart health.
“One or two special occasions each year is not going to cause you to gain weight,” said Alicia Bosscher RD, clinical nutritionist at UW Health. “But for some people, birthdays, anniversaries and holidays add up to monthly, or even weekly gatherings, which can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.”
Bosscher says the trouble usually begins with the type of food often served on special occasions. A heart healthy diet should contain plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats – like nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish – things you aren’t as likely to see at a party.
“Heavy hor d’oeuvres can get us into trouble because they’re often served buffet style, making it difficult to track how much we’ve eaten,” she said.
Desserts can be formidable, too, especially when there are so many options and it’s tempting to try them all. “Choose the best and leave the rest,” Bosscher said.
A toast to your health
Bosscher says that in moderation (two drinks or fewer per day for a man; one per day for a woman), alcohol is not generally harmful for heart health, as long as you consider the calories in your drink, and balance it out with the rest of your food choices for that day.
“The trouble starts when we mix in sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and juice,” she said. “Sugar is not heart healthy because it causes inflammation in the body and can contribute to excess weight gain.”
Another thing to ask yourself: will alcohol impair your judgment and make you more likely to indulge in a second dessert or an extra helping of canapes?
If you’re not interested in cutting out alcohol altogether, Bosscher suggests setting a goal to cut your usual amount in half. You might try pouring your drink in smaller glass, or bookending your cocktail with sparkling water with lime (start with water, have one alcoholic drink and then drink a second water). Disguising your sparkling water as a cocktail might also help you feel less self-conscious if you’re among friends who pressure you to drink.
Get ready for a heart healthy good time
Bosscher has several helpful suggestions for staying on track year-round.
Don’t show up overly hungry. Eat a normal breakfast and lunch on the day of a party. If you arrive calm and satiated, you’re less likely to overindulge.
Even if you think you’re too busy, try to sneak in a few minutes of exercise. Bosscher said a 10-minute walk and some light stretching is better than nothing. “Knowing you put in that effort may give you the confidence to stay on track and make healthier choices at the party,” she said.
Once you arrive, survey all your options before trying anything. Grab a glass of sparkling water and walk around while keeping a mental tally of what looks best to you. Go easy on what Bosscher calls “filler carbs;" crackers and dinner rolls might be tempting, but try to leave room instead for your favorite foods.
Peer pressure, especially from family, can be hard to overcome. “When enjoying a meal at someone’s house, it can be hard to say no to second helpings or dessert,” Bosscher said. “Be kind, but firm, explaining you have set goals that are important to you.” To make sure the host doesn’t feel bad, ask for the recipe for something you enjoyed and always thank them for the great meal.
Preparation and strategy are important, but Bosscher wants to remind everyone to be realistic. “It’s not necessary to be perfect,” she said.
Rather than setting your expectations too high, focus on two things that are most important to you and write them down before the special occasion. Post this on your mirror or refrigerator and read it throughout the day to remind yourself of your plan.
And of course, if things don’t go as well as you hoped, don’t be too hard on yourself. Tomorrow is a new day, and you can get back on the road to heart health by taking an extra walk.