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Written by: Rowena Leung, RD

The holiday season can be a challenging time for our clients as they balance the health and wellness benefits that come from enjoying holiday meals with friends and family. These joyous occasions often bring with them a tendency to overindulge in foods that are high in calories, saturated fat, and carbohydrates. For clients with cardiovascular disease, holiday mealtime can be especially challenging. You can help them stay on track to eating healthy throughout the holidays starting with a few simple tips to navigate the grocery store aisle, plan holiday meals, and prevent overindulging.


Navigating the Grocery Aisle

Here is what I have found works well to help my clients in the grocery store:

  • Plan the big holiday meal. I recommend coordinating what foods the host prepares or the dish each person brings to a meal. This way the host can achieve balanced choices and not end up with too many appetizers, sides, or desserts to tempt overeating at mealtime.
  • Prepare a grocery list. Having a clear picture of all the ingredients needed for all the holiday cooking and baking will save time in the store and head-off those spur-of-the-moment purchases.
  • Substitute in heart healthy ingredients. Substituting ingredients that are high in saturated fats with plant-based alternatives that have lower saturated fat can make the famous family recipe a bit healthier for the heart.
  • Focus on food they can eat. Reframe their thinking from what they can’t eat to the heart healthy foods that they can eat and enjoy, such as the many tasty plant-based foods in stores today.
  • Read food labels. Help them shop for the foods that make holiday eating special without breaking their meal plan. Show them how to read food labels. That way they choose ingredients that have less sodium, more fibre, or contain healthier fats. I have put together a handout with food label reading tips as well as some heart-healthy plant-based food recommendations.


Planning that Holiday Meal

Before the holidays, I talk to my clients about the foods that are a special part of their holiday traditions and encourage them to include these in their celebrations. Little indulgences are what makes the holidays so great, and a few extras on a special occasion are unlikely to affect a heart healthy eating plan. Encourage your client to enjoy them in moderation so that it will be easier for them to get back on their nutrition plan following the holiday. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t feel guilty. Grandma’s shortbread cookies or mom’s stuffing are hard to resist, and it’s okay to enjoy these special foods, keeping reasonable portions in mind.
  • Continue with plant-based foods. If eating with friends or family, I recommend bringing a plant-based dish. Or add a new plant-based item to the holiday dinner menu as a fun way of introducing a healthier food that could create a new holiday tradition.
  • Look for heart healthy substitutions. Replace baking using butter with soft margarine as a healthier way to bake with buttery taste and a lower amount of saturated fat in those holiday cookies and cakes.


Prevent Overindulging

I always tell clients that holidays can be a bumpy time. It can be hard to plan ahead and stick to a healthy food plan due to the many holiday events and last-minute gatherings. To help my clients not overindulge, I recommend:

  • Plan ahead. Setting limits on how much food goes on to their plates to help them balance and gauge the amount of food they’re actually eating.
  • Eat regularly before the main meal. Some people avoid eating all day to “save room” for the big holiday meal. This can lead to overeating because being hungry and being surrounded by an abundance of holiday foods is just too much to resist those extra bites.
  • Choose plant-based meals. High-fibre, plant-based foods are healthier and generally lower in calorie choices that are both satisfying and filling.
  • Slow down and enjoy. Slowing down, enjoying the food, as well as the company and conversation, which will help them stop eating sooner because they feel full sooner.
  • Watch the alcohol consumption. As delicious as those holiday drink concoctions may be, the calories can quickly add up. Being conscious of calories, including choosing which cocktail or desserts, can help your client manage their overall caloric intake over the holiday season.


Permission for a Small Holiday Slip to the Plan

As dietitians, we must remind our clients that a healthy lifestyle is a lifelong commitment. An occasional indulgence is okay and not likely to derail their long-term health goals. However, indulgences should be offset by a meal plan strategy that always includes heart-healthy plant-based foods.

We play a critical role in guiding our clients to healthier eating during the holidays. Simple tips and healthy food suggestions can help our clients with cardiovascular disease or at risk of cardiovascular disease enjoy holiday eating and the occasional holiday treat without throwing their scheduled meal plan off-track.

Looking to provide your clients with healthy tips on plant-based eating to improve their heart health? Click the button below to download my handout of five changes they can start making today that also includes a helpful overview on how to properly read food labels.

Rowena Leung, RD

Rowena Leung is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator who holds a Bachelor of Science (Human Ecology) Honours, Food and Nutrition from Western University. She is the pioneer retail dietitian for Loblaw Companies Ltd. in Toronto, Canada specializing in providing the public with practical nutrition tips. Rowena is currently a member of the 2021 Becel Centre for Heart Health Steering Committee, a team of registered dietitians working to create practical and relevant content, for which she receives an honorarium.