Heart Health

Updated 17 December 2013

Protect your heart this Christmas

Research shows that there are spikes in heart attacks and heart failures on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day.


The festive season can take a heavy toll on your heart and health and while this may be the furthest thing from your mind as you head towards the holidays, the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa says it is possible to enjoy Christmas and New Year while still being kind to your heart.

We are all familiar with that guilty and altogether horrible feeling of waking up the morning after the big feast knowing we have just eaten and drunk too much. But did you know that there could be real consequences to that excess?

Research shows that there are significant spikes in heart attacks and heart failures on three particular days of the year: Christmas day, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

The study, conducted by the University of California, San Diego and Tufts University, found that in the US heart-related deaths increase over the holidays. Possible contributing factors could include: increased stress, inactivity, over indulgence, and ignorance about the signs of heart failure and heart attacks. Weight gain and increased salt intake often happens over the holiday period which could also increase the strain on the heart.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure claim the lives of 195 people a day. It is commonly known now that the majority of South Africans are unfit and live unhealthy lifestyles. Research by the Medical Research Council (MRC), published in 2011, showed that a massive 45% of men and 70% of women in South Africa are overweight or obese. It is not only adults who are overweight and obese – in fact, 20% of learners between 11 and 20 years old are overweight and 5% are obese. And, 48% of men and 63% of women are classified as inactive.

Heavy eating and alcohol abuse

The Heart and Stroke Foundation SA’s CEO, Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, says that South Africa does not have a good record when it comes to healthy hearts, and that the festive season can compound the problem.

“After a long, stressful year the tendency is to just let go and enjoy the indulgences of the festive season,” she says. “But this can have lasting and very serious consequences.”

Heavy eating and alcohol abuse, as well as inactivity are almost the cultural norm over the holidays. Smoking, exaggerated intake of alcohol, fat, salt and sugar are a major cause worldwide of heart problems.

“For many it would be sad to have to cut down on family favourites around the holiday dinner table. We are not saying that you have to give up Christmas, but there are so many ways one can stay or even become healthy during this time off from work,” she says.

She suggests making healthy food options and finding recipes that fit the season but are good for you. And, of course, with so much more extra time, getting outside and being more active is not only a great way to get fit or maintain a healthy weight but it’s also a good opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends.

“The holidays can still be fun, and actually even more fun, if people get creative with recipes and gift ideas, and ways to pass the time,” says Mungal-Singh. “Give your heart the gift of health this Christmas.”

Healthy heart ideas for the festive season table

When eating and drinking this festive season, Mungal-Singh says that there are a number of healthy heart recipes that you could substitute for more traditional and less healthy fare. The Heart and Stroke Foundation has published a cook book featuring several recipes, here are two to get you going:


Whole roasted peri-peri chicken

  • 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons peri-peri or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1,2 kg whole chicken, skin and all fat removed
  • 6 potatoes, quartered
  • Half a teaspoon salt
  • Half cup water

And, if you must leave Father Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, then why not leave him the healthier option. He has many stops to make, and chimneys to squeeze through.

Healthy Oatmeal Cookies

The great thing about this recipe is you can substitute some of the oil for applesauce.

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 and a half cups large flake rolled oats
  • Half teaspoon of baking soda
  • Half teaspoon baking powder
  • Half teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • Half teaspoon nutmeg
  • Half cup honey
  • Half cup oil (grapeseed or olive)
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 egg (beat with a tablespoon of water)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

For more healthy heart recipes go to

Gifts from and for the heart

Instead of buying a big screen TV, new leather couch, or game console, why not go for gifts that encourage an active lifestyle? Some examples include:

Gardening tools: Gardening burns kilojoules and works the muscles and brings beauty to the garden.

Running shoes: This shows that you care enough about the person to think of their wellbeing and their style.

Massage voucher: Massages relieve tension and release endorphins – those feel-good chemicals.

Juicer and blender: Smoothies and freshly made fruit and veggie juices are the result of a gift that keeps on giving.

Fitness watch: Not only a constant reminder of the need to exercise but also a means by which to measure progress.

Act now to improve your health

With so much extra time over the holidays there are plenty of opportunities to get outdoors and get active. Exercise and outdoor play is good for maintaining a healthy weight over the holiday period.

Hiking is a great family activity and is very good for your heart. It improves cardio-respiratory fitness and muscular fitness, lowers risk of heart disease and stroke, lowers risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, reduces depression and improves sleep. Aside from the fact that a hike burns many kilojoules, the beautiful views form timeless memories.

South Africans are lucky; Christmas is in summer. And nothing beats the heat like a swim. Whether in the ocean, a lake, river, or swimming pool, swimming is fun and relaxing. It’s also very good exercise. Just 30 minutes a day can reduce the risk of CVD significantly.

Get plenty of sleep this holiday. Stress is a risk factor for heart problems, and the better sleep you get the less stressed you are, the healthier your heart. Also the sense of wellbeing associated with being well rested is good for your mental and physical health in general – pivotal for being in a good mood every day, and critical for the creativity required for keeping healthy this festive season.

“Choosing to be healthy doesn’t mean giving up all the things we love over the holidays, it means finding a balance so we can actually do more and have a richer experience with our loved ones in the knowledge that there are many more holidays ahead to share together,” says Mungal-Singh.

Be healthy this Christmas.

For more tips of how to stay healthy go to or like the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa Facebook page.

Read more:

Top 10 heart-smart foods
Heart-healthy cooking with free new recipe book
Keep your heart pumping


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