The holiday halls may be decked with delicious foods, but give your heart the gift of pacing yourself this season. Research shows that overeating can cause gastric distress in the short term and over time can lead to unhealthy weight gain and obesity — risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.
If you have high cholesterol or other heart-health risk factors, overeating can give you more than just heartburn — it can actually lead to a heart attack. In fact, a study published in October 2016 in the journal Clinical Research in Cardiology revealed a holiday season peak in cardiac-related hospital admissions, with overeating cited as a key trigger.
“Binge eating puts stress on the body,” explains Amnon Beniaminovitz, MD, a cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology in New York City. Much like emotional outbursts, running fast, or shoveling snow, overeating makes extra work for the heart, Beniaminovitz says.
A large meal can also trigger the release of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that can raise blood pressure and heart rate, say the experts at Berkeley Wellness.
A large meal, especially one full of fat and refined carbs, can also raise the levels of triglycerides in your blood, and those levels can remain elevated for anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, the Berkeley Wellness team suggests. Add in alcohol and those triglyceride levels can hit truly dangerous highs.
The Long-Term Consequences of Overeating
If the risk of heart attack isn’t enough to give you pause, think about your future health before you load that plate with a second or third helping. A study published online in November 2016 in the journal Nature Genetics demonstrated a strong link between insulin resistance — a major risk factor for heart attacks and type 2 diabetes, and a key consequence of obesity — and the failure to safely store excess fat in the body.
“Overeating can lead to being overweight, which is linked to diabetes,” says Sonia Tolani, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, and part of Columbia’s Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health. “And diabetes is one of the most significant risk factors for developing heart diseases, tripling the risk of heart disease in women and doubling the risk in men.”
Besides diabetes, weight gain can also lead to sleep apnea, says Michael R. Bauer, MD, cardiologist with Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
10 Tips to Avoid Overeating This Holiday Season
Regardless of the short- or long-term health risks, avoiding overeating is easier said than done — especially when food is the center of so many holiday traditions. Consider these cardiologist-approved tips to make this holiday a heart-healthy one:
1. Stick to a routine. Dr. Beniaminovitz believes having a strict diet and exercise regimen — eating the same meals at the same time each day, and not deviating too much from that routine — is the best way to avoid holiday gluttony. It’s also a great tip for maintaining a heart-healthy diet all year round.
2. Avoid foods with saturated fat. High fat foods and rich foods with dairy, like dips, should also be avoided, recommends Dr. Tolani.
3. Do portion control. Use a salad plate instead of a dinner plate to manage portion sizes, Solani suggests.
4. Drink water in between bites. “This reminds you to slow down while you’re eating so you can recognize when you’re full,” says Tolani.
5. Don’t eat late at night. Try to avoid eating after 8 p.m., Dr. Bauer advises.
6. Limit alcohol and sweets. Keep those sweet pieces of pie and cocktails to a minimum, Bauer says.
7. Keep a food diary. Keeping track of what you eat is an effective way to curb binge eating episodes, suggests an article for the American Heart Association on using mindfulness to stop overeating, written by Brian Wansink, PhD, professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and author of the best-selling book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
8. Go slow. Chew slowly so you can savor each bite, and put your fork down in between bites, says Dr. Wansink. This allows your brain time to send the “satisfied” signal, instead of pushing to the point of “stuffed.”
9. Use tech. Calorie counting apps, food trackers, and heart-health monitoring apps can be helpful year round as a digital accountability partner.
10. Move the food when the meal is done. Wansink suggests an “out of sight, out of mind” tactic for huge holiday meals: Once firsts have been served, send the serving platters, bowls, and dishes back to the kitchen.