➽ Q: My husband recently had a heart attack, and because the holidays can be stressful—and because sugary, fatty foods are everywhere—I’m worried. How can we stay heart-healthy through the season?
A: You’re right to be concerned—unhealthy food choices, lack of time for self-care and physical activity, and the stress of the season increase emergency-room visits and heart-related deaths. To keep your husband from becoming one of those statistics, commit with him to focus on health. Remind your husband that by taking care of himself, he’ll spare his family the burden of having to nurse him back to health.
We suggest you take this test together to assess your current status. If you each score over 18, you’re on your way to a healthy holiday now and for years to come. If your total is 18 or less, start following these strategies now.
1. Do you eat roughly four servings of fruits and five or more servings of vegetables daily? (4 points)
If so, you’re giving your ticker a great gift. Eating different-colored vegetables and fruits increases your intake of phytonutrients, compounds believed to fend off chronic illnesses, including heart disease. A serving is probably smaller than you think—just a half-cup, or about the size of a tennis ball cut in half. To work these into your meals:
➻ Put a salad in your sandwich or omelet: Don’t stop at tomatoes—throw in spinach, beets, onions, radishes, spinach and kale.
➻ Toss steamed vegetables like broccoli or green beans into pasta.
➻ Add fresh seasonal fruit—berries, bananas, apples—to cereal or oatmeal.
➻ Add fruit to green salads. In-season choices include pomegranate, mandarin oranges, tangerines and pears.
➻ Serve grilled fruit (pineapple, apples, bananas) on skewers for dessert.
2. Have you been walking 10,000 steps—about 5 miles—a day? (4 points)
Walking helps you lose weight and get fit; reduces your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer; boosts your mood; keeps your brain healthy; and reduces food cravings. If 10,000 or more daily steps seems overwhelming, know that half of that can easily come from your normal routine.
Need motivation? Wear a pedometer. Even better, give a few to friends and family this holiday season and challenge each other to reach 10,000 steps every day.
3. Have you cut out unhealthy fats? (2 points)
Trans fatty acids are poison. These fats increase the hardening of your arteries and negatively affect metabolism. Trans fats lurk in packaged cookies, crackers, chips and in many fast-food meals—especially fried foods. When reading a food label, watch for the terms partially hydrogenated or just hydrogenated vegetable oils. If either is near the top of the ingredient list or is listed before healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, don’t buy the product.
Saturated fat causes the buildup of fatty tissue along the lining of your arteries. Avoid or severely limit foods with these fats: red meats, full-fat dairy products, and palm and coconut oils.
In contrast, polyunsaturated fats seem to be heart-healthy and decrease aging. And monounsaturated—the best—fats (in olive oil, avocados, nuts and fish) boost the healthy cholesterol in your blood and keep your ticker young.
4. Have you quit smoking and do you avoid secondhand smoke? (2 points)
This is the most important action. Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis and diabetes, among others. And if you don’t smoke but spend time around those who do? The smoke that burns off the end of a cigarette or cigar contains more harmful substances than the smoke inhaled by the smoker! So you must avoid it. (For more information and tips, visit SmokeFree.gov.)
5. Have you reduced your added sugar intake? (4 points)
Sugar that occurs naturally in foods like vegetables and fruits is nice; refined sugar added to foods is naughty. Added sugars cause all kinds of problems throughout your body. A food is likely to be high in added sugar if one of these substances is first or second in the list of ingredients (or if several are present): brown sugar, corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, table sugar. Also watch out for concentrated fruit juice and expeller pressed organic rice extract.
6. Have you switched to whole grains? (2 points)
Whole grains contain fiber, which thwarts arterial aging. Whole grains also help keep blood sugar levels steady, help you feel full and lose weight, and keep your digestive system regular. Whole grains have not been refined, i.e., stripped of their nutritious outer layers. Unless all the bread or pasta you’re eating is made from and says 100 percent whole grain (and says so in the first spot in the ingredient list), it’s not much better for you than added sugar. Why? When you eat foods made with refined grains (breads and pastas made with enriched, bleached, unbleached, semolina or durum flour), your body quickly converts the carbohydrates to sugar.
Shoot for six or more servings of whole grains a day, preferably from a diverse mix of sources such as brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread, quinoa, barley and oats.
7. Have you been managing your stress? (6 points)
A bit of short-term stress can motivate you to achieve your goals, but uncontrolled, long-term stress can increase your risk of heart disease. When you feel overwhelmed, try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga. Simply paying attention to the present moment without judging it (typically done through meditation and conscious breathing) slows breathing and improves your outlook.
➽ Q: I’m estranged from my immediate family, so how can I get through the holidays without feeling so alienated?
A: Find comfort in a holiday theme: giving. Charitable acts help you feel connected to those who benefit from your generosity. Volunteering at, say, a homeless shelter or singing carols at a senior center also connects you with other volunteers who are like-minded. Who knows, you may end up with lifelong friendships as a result. And volunteering feels good, too.
Researchers have found that the effect of giving—altruistic actions small and big—is similar to the so-called runner’s high (the rush of endorphins). And people who experience this “helper’s high” assess their health as better than those who don’t. That’s because charitable thoughts help strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and provide overall stress relief. When you think a happy, generous thought, you’re telling your brain to stop producing stress hormones and substances that raise blood pressure and cause inflammation.
And by all means, throw some charity your own way. We’re huge fans of massage, so treat yourself and be immediately transported from stressed-out-of-your-mind to aaaah. Plus, regular massage has been linked to an improvement in everything from depression to anxiety.
➽ Q: I get many solicitations around the holidays asking to support research for cancer, lupus, autism… you name it. I want to help cure these health problems, but is there any way to know which of these organizations are legit?
A: Check out CharityNavigator.org, which rates and analyzes nonprofits to separate the legitimate charities from organizations that are run inefficiently or that aren’t transparent about where donations go.