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Heavy holiday dinners can trigger a heart attack

December 20, 2016 | Kristina Lindgren
woman eating pie around holidays

As you dash from holiday parties and family feasts, pace yourself because overindulging in food and drink can be hazardous to your health.

UCI Health cardiologist Dr. Shaista Malik says a heavy meal doesn’t just add pounds, it also can trigger a heart attack or heart failure, particularly in people already diagnosed with heart disease. Strategies to avoid overindulging ›

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 600,000 lives annually. But more people die of heart attacks on Christmas Day than any other day of the year, followed by Dec. 26 in second place and Jan. 1 in third, studies show.

Why heart attacks occur during the holidays

Decades ago, health experts began noticing that more people have serious heart attacks in December and January. A closer look at the numbers showed that the spike is most pronounced in the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Winter weather, a decrease in physical activity and emotional stress around the holidays all are factors, to be sure.

But statistics show that the risk of a heart attack increases fourfold within two hours of consuming a heavy meal. Why?

  • “When you eat a lot of food at once, the stomach expands and the body shifts blood from the heart to the digestive system,” says Malik, medical director of the UCI Health Preventive Cardiology & Cholesterol Management Program. “In people who already have blockage in heart arteries, any shunting of blood away from the heart can result in angina, or chest pain.”
  • Moreover, she added, a distended stomach can lead to faster and irregular heart rhythms, which can also produce a heart attack or heart failure.
  • Heavy drinking also plays a role in heart trouble. “Alcohol can be toxic to the heart — it can weaken the heart muscle. And it, too, can predispose a person to arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation,” Malik added. Is alcohol putting you at risk? ›

Recognize heart attack symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms and getting immediate medical care is vital. “One-third of people suffering a heart attack die before getting to a hospital,” Malik said.

Learn the signs and symptoms that could signal a heart attack ›

Do not assume that fatigue, shortness of breath, severe heart burn or unusual chest pain will subside.

“If you have this constellation of symptoms, you should seek medical care — go to urgent care or to the emergency room — right away,” she said.

Key to heart attack prevention: moderation

The best way to prevent heart problems is by eating and drinking in moderation, Malik said. That can be tough if you have myriad holiday gatherings with family and friends to attend.

The secret, she said, is planning ahead:

  • "Before a party, eat a high-protein snack, a handful of nuts or some yogurt — that will make it easier to pass up foods you know are high in fat and salt."
  • "Try to stick with lean protein and fill up on sides of veggies. Instead of eating a full-size piece of cake or pie, share it,” Malik adds.
  • You should also politely decline the leftovers, she advised. “It’s OK to indulge a little bit at a party. But keeping it up over the next few days is what gets us into trouble.”

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