Thanksgiving dinner will make your heart beat with joy at the sight of all the delicious roast turkey, sides, and desserts.
But what does the feast – with all its fat, salt, meat, sugar and alcohol – actually do to your heart health?
When you ask cardiologists what they eat for Thanksgiving, two camps emerge. Some are afraid of the traditional dinner and choose a different menu for their own family.
“If you look at the purpose of holidays, we’re really trying to celebrate life. And yet we sit down with people and poison each other. This is something we really need to fix,” says Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, told TODAY.com.
He no longer eats turkey or animal proteins and prepares pumpkin stuffed with quinoa, beans and spices as his main dish on Thanksgiving.
But the other group of heart doctors believes that it is important to enjoy the holidays along with traditional foods.
“I’m probably not a typical cardiologist. “I eat everything on Thanksgiving,” says Dr. Marc Eisenberg, clinical cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
“If you miss something at Thanksgiving, you’ll probably just eat whatever you think you missed the next day or the day after. I tell most people: just enjoy it.”
It’s one day of the year, so Dr. Sean Heffron, a cardiologist at the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at NYU Langone Health in New York, said he is allowing himself some freedom.
“(But) don’t do it six weeks a year, which a lot of people do from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and that’s easy,” he warns.
There are also some important precautions for people with heart disease.
Here’s what heart doctors will be eating this Thursday and what foods and drinks they’ll be avoiding:
What Cardiologists Eat for Thanksgiving:
Vegetable side dishes as a main course
Dr. Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, eats a mostly plant-based diet, but also eats a small turkey with lots of vegetable sides like sweet potatoes or butternut squash or salad.
“Portion control is hugely important because eating more than what we need in a given situation, especially a meal, tends to overload the system,” she says.
Instead of eating a huge piece of turkey, it’s better to eat lots of spinach or broccoli and try some meat on the side, advises Freeman. He loves green beans and potatoes, but strongly advises against dousing his favorite vegetables with oil and butter.
“Sometimes you see people put 2 pounds of turkey on their plate and next eat a piece of broccoli,” he notes. “It just blows my mind.”
Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and clinical associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tries to make her Thanksgiving dinner less carb-heavy by serving lots of salad and vegetables.
Food from the hot air fryer
An air fryer is a great way to make baby potatoes crispy and surprisingly delicious, says Freeman.
He also likes to crisp up fresh Brussels sprouts in an air fryer and then cover them with a balsamic vinegar glaze.
Fruit, cranberry bread or a mini pastry for dessert
Fruit was a popular dessert option among cardiologists. Goldberg recommends making “a beautifully colorful fruit salad.” She also likes to serve a selection of mini pastries instead of large cakes.
“It’s also a great opportunity to make cranberry or banana breads that are made with simple ingredients and are delicious and moist,” adds Freeman. Some store-bought cakes may also work because they are “accidentally plant-based,” meaning they contain no milk, butter, or cream. So check the ingredients list, he advises.
What cardiologists don’t eat on Thanksgiving:
An animal’s skin is typically very high in fat and calories, says Freeman. “I would never recommend turkey skin in general,” he notes.
Heffron also recommends removing the skin and focusing on the white meat briskets, which contain less fat.
All cardiologists say they would avoid butter because it contains so many animal fats and cholesterol. They encourage people to look for ways to reduce or eliminate them in recipes.
“Butter is probably the worst thing people can eat,” warns Eisenberg.
“Butter is used in excess in many situations where you often don’t need as much to maintain the high-quality flavor of the meal,” adds Cheng.
Heffron says he modified his grandmother’s stuffing recipe to no longer contain butter, and it doesn’t taste much different.
Traditional gravy just contains added fats and calories, Heffron notes. A little olive oil might be better, along with a few nuts sprinkled over the food to give it some texture, he adds.
“You can make a delicious sauce from mushrooms and flour. “But when you start adding cream, milk, butter and eggs…then the calories, saturated fat and cholesterol get really high,” warns Freeman. “These are things that can potentially lead to atherosclerosis later on.”
Foods that are too salty
People with high blood pressure, heart or kidney disease need to watch their salt intake, says Eisenberg.
Unfortunately, the typical Thanksgiving feast is full of salt, even plain turkey meat. Most store-bought turkeys are brined for days, meaning they’re soaked in salt water to make them juicier — some are even injected with brine for the same reason, Freeman points out.
Americans already eat more salt than recommended every day, but on Thanksgiving it may be several times the amount they should eat in a day, he adds.
When making things from scratch, add salt at the very end of the cooking process, which often results in less salt being added overall, advises Cheng. Skip the “fancy” coarse salt, which provides a much larger amount of salt for the flavor you get, she adds.
Alcohol or holiday drinks in excess
Doctors say maybe just try a little wine or avoid alcohol altogether. One or two drinks is generally fine, but don’t overdo it, warns Eisenberg.
“You have to be careful because alcohol can increase blood pressure; It can also lead to cardiac arrhythmias,” he notes.
Traditional eggnog is high in calories, fat, and added sugar, so it’s best to limit this holiday drink, says Freeman.
Heart-Healthy Thanksgiving Tips:
Here’s more advice from cardiologists on caring for your heart this holiday:
- Eat breakfast and lunch on Thanksgiving Day so you don’t come to dinner extremely hungry.
- Eat as healthily as possible in the days before and after your vacation.
- Be active: If possible, go for a walk before and after dinner. Play football with your family. Go skiing when it snows.
- Enjoy being with friends and family. “Social contacts are incredibly important,” says Cheng. “Psychosocial positivity is good for the heart in ways we don’t fully understand.”