Thanksgiving means getting some much-needed time off work, relaxing with family, and cozying up by the fire. It also means stuffing our faces with food. While it’s fun to indulge around the holidays, it’s not so good for our waistline.
The challenge with Turkey Day is it’s not just about the turkey. You also have pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, gravy and more. An abundance of high-starch foods, sweets, cookies, desserts, etc. fill out dining room tables, making it difficult to keep off the pounds while enjoying the holiday.
In fact, Americans can consume more than 4,500 calories at a Thanksgiving dinner, according to the Calorie Control Council. You’d have to walk about 4.5 hours on an incline or bike for six hours to burn off just that one meal. Oh, and 3,500 calories equals about one pound. So, you can pack on an extra pound in an evening without noticing.
Unfortunately, this is just the kickoff of the holiday season. For the next few months, you’ll be attending many food-focused parties and celebrations. And we know abstaining is not always a reasonable option. So, knowing how to stay on track with your health and fitness goals without feeling deprived is key to celebrating smartly.
To do that, we tapped several nutritionists and a certified holistic health coach to come up with the top 25 tips for not gaining weight during Thanksgiving.
You can’t lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle without first having a plan. You don’t just all of a sudden whip up healthy meals and hit the gym every day. You need to know your plan of attack. This couldn’t be truer than on Thanksgiving. Try to find out what is going to be available food-wise and decide what you would like to indulge in and stick to the boundaries. This will prevent you from filling up too much on the higher-calorie items. Also, have a plan for how you’ll burn off those extra calories too. No matter your choices, having a plan in place will help you stay on top of your health goals.
Research has shown that people are more likely to stick to a healthy routine if they have a buddy to do it with them. Why? Because it keeps you motivated and accountable for your actions. While this is typically used for long-term health goals, it can certainly help at Thanksgiving dinner. Find a family member who is also keen on not packing on the pounds during the holidays and come up with a plan together. Having a comrade can prevent that pushy grandmother from stuffing extra stuffing down your throat. If you can’t find someone in the household, pick a pal you can text with throughout the evening to stay on track.
You might think that a spoonful of everything isn’t as bad as filling your plate with turkey and gravy. But some Thanksgiving sides are loaded with unexpected calories that can entirely throw off a balanced diet. Eyeing those mashed potatoes? It’s about 237 calories for a cup of them. Green bean casserole is a veggie, right? Well, that dish is filled with about 230 calories per cup. And every time you pat that butter on to something, you’re adding another 36 calories. You don’t have to totally skip out on the sides, just keep them to a quarter cup and fill up on healthier options like corn, spinach, and Brussels sprouts.
Healthy eating can quickly get derailed when you’re not planning out healthy meals. Starting your morning on a healthy note can help set the tone for the rest of your day. “Have some healthy breakfasts planned for Thanksgiving weekend,” says New Jersey-based nutritionist Amy Gorin. “If you’re visiting family, offer to help make breakfast so that everyone has a healthy start to the day.”
One of her favorite easy, healthy breakfasts is a smoothie, such as one made with wild blueberries, banana, and peanut butter. Greek yogurt and milk offer filling protein, plus you get satiating fiber and also health-boosting antioxidants from the wild blueberries. “In fact, wild blueberries boast more than double the antioxidants of regular blueberries,” she says. “You get additional fiber from the banana, and the peanut butter supplies healthy fat to help keep you full.”
The easiest way to ensure that there are healthy eats at Thanksgiving dinner? Offer to bring a veggie-filled dish yourself. This can be a low-calorie side like sautéed spinach or roasted brussels sprouts. You could also show up with a raw vegetable platter with a healthy dip like guacamole or hummus as an appetizer, so you (and guests) fill up on healthy foods before even sitting down to eat the dinner. Having a healthier pre-dinner snack will prevent you from overeating the higher-calorie fare.
Everyone talks about how to watch what you eat during Thanksgiving. But it’s just as important to focus on what you’re drinking too. A lot of the traditional foods served during the holidays are packed full of salt leaving you feeling dehydrated and lethargic. Keeping your water intake up will help prevent that bloated feeling. Plus, sometimes we mistake thirst for hunger. So drinking water before a meal may help you feel fuller and help you eat less. “Eating a broth-based soup or a hydrating veggie-based salad can have a similar effect,” says Gorin.
You might be killing it when it comes to filling your plate with healthy food options and keep portion sizes of the sweet and starchy stuff in check. Have you been keeping an eye on what’s in your glass though? It can be very easy to overlook the calorie intake from holiday drinks (we’re looking at you apple cider) and booze. They’re a sneaky source of empty calories and added sugar, which can lead to you wondering why the scale is reading out a higher number than normal. To combat this surprising problem, according to Palladino, follow a few simple tips: Drink alcohol in moderation (we’re talking a glass or two tops), use flavored sparkling water as a base for lower-calorie cocktails, and drink tea for a warm drink substitute. “Also have a glass of water or seltzer in between any alcoholic drinks so that you don't overdo it on the wine or beer,” adds Gorin.
Having a plan is paramount whenever you’re trying to stay on a healthy track. If you’re trying to avoid carbs and know you’re going out to a pasta dinner with pals, you should look at the restaurant’s menu before arriving to know what options are available. The same is true for Thanksgiving dinner. Before you make a beeline to the buffet, take a pre-dinner lap first ahead of any food decisions. This will help you scope out what’s available and not get too spoon happy as you make your way down the table. While you might not have control over exactly what’s served, you can make a rational decision with a little surveying beforehand.
Once you’ve surveyed the buffet, it’s important to put that health plan into action. If you don’t want to avoid any of the holiday favorites, then follow some simple advice to not fill up on the higher calorie foods. “Take a look at all the offerings, then decide what you most would like to try,” says Gorin. “Fill up no more than half your plate with those items, then pile the remainder of the plate with veggies and fruit.” Palladino calls this the “Plate Method” where you fill half your plate with salad and/or veggies, a quarter with lean protein (turkey in this case), and a quarter with starchy foods. It’s an easy way to have a balanced diet without measuring.
Along with applying the “Plate Method,” nutritionist and founder of Pure Change, Dr. Charles Passler, suggests taking portion control one step further. “If at a dinner that is a buffet, chose to use a smaller plate, such as a salad or dessert plate,” he says. “This will not allow you to take as much food.” The simple trick will prevent you from having to figure out how to divide up your plate. It can also help you pace your meal. Rather than gobbling down everything on your large plate only to realize you overate, you can finish off your smaller plate, take a beat, and see if you’re still hungry for more. Mindful eating helps keep you on a healthy track.
If there’s one thing that might be more popular than a Thanksgiving meal, it’s Turkey Day leftovers. You might prepare enough food for an army and therefore be stuck with a lot of extras. That means you could have days ahead of you filling up on sweets and sides that don’t get finished. Now, instead of one indulgent day, you have a week’s worth. Gorin’s advice? Send each guest home with a serving or two of dessert. “You won’t be tempted with all those leftover pies and cookies if you don’t keep them all,” she says. “You can purchase little treat bags or boxes to make the treat cute.”
Everyone knows that being physically active is important to maintaining a healthy weight all year around. It’s even more essential during the holidays because the exercise can offset excess calories from a big holiday meal, according to Atlanta-based registered dietitian Alissa Palladino. And you don’t have to slave away at the gym. Signing up for a local turkey trot is fun for the whole family and gets everyone moving together. Research now what options are available in your town. Plus, signing up in advance will help keep you focused on making healthier choices throughout the holiday and prevent you from overindulging.
It’s easy to just lounge around after a big meal especially after the tryptophan kicks in. But get moving right away. Multiple studies have found that walking about 15 minutes after a meal can improve digestion and control your blood sugar. So, you could go to bed not feeling so full and jump-start your system to start processing the excess food. In addition, it starts burning some of those extra calories you just consumed (brisk walking burns anywhere from 90 to 200 calories in only 30 minutes). Invite other family members on your stroll to keep table conversations going, and, perhaps even make it a family tradition.
Taking a post-dinner walk and signing up for a turkey trot are great ways to jump-start some physical activity. But you don’t want to fall into the trap of laying around for the days after the holiday. So, don’t just schedule those two events, but instead put workouts in your calendar for the entire week after Thanksgiving, just like you would schedule a doctor's appointment. “Schedule a walking catch-up with a high-school pal and plan a flag football game with the family,” says Gorin. “This creates an incentive to stay active. Plus, when you’re taking care of yourself, you’re more inclined to make healthy decisions.”
You might be tempted to "save up" calories before a big holiday meal by skipping meals beforehand. But that actually sets you up to overeat, according to Palladino. Arriving famished will cause you to eat quickly and not give your mind time to catch up with your stomach. That means you could ingest way more calories than you normally would and leave you stuck with that full feeling. Instead, have a small snack (i.e., almonds, Greek yogurt, string cheese) that includes protein a couple of hours beforehand. This will take the edge off hunger and help you make better choices once you sit down for the big meal.
While mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and gravy are laden with calories, so too are the desserts. One slice of pumpkin pie is packed with about 320 of them, and just one shortbread cookie has 40 calories (but who eats just one?). Instead, choose a more balanced dessert if you want to indulge in a little on the savory stuff. Passler recommends fruit (dried or fresh), dark chocolate, dark chocolate-covered nuts, or a fruit and cheese platter. “An additional glass of dry wine is also an alternative option to a sugary high caloric dessert,” he says.
If you’re not a fan of measuring or dividing up your plate and need something simpler, then follow one easy rule: Don’t have seconds. By sticking to this one piece of advice, you stop yourself from eating too much during the evening, and it gives your brain time to realize you’re full. One dinner plate of a Thanksgiving meal should be plenty to fill you up. So, if you make a pact to skip out on having more than one serving, you’ll likely feel satisfied and not eat an excessive number of calories. Just don’t pile that first plate up too much!
Have you been put in charge of cooking up some of the main dishes this year? While you could make a completely raw vegan meal, we imagine many family members won’t be pleased. Instead, take this opportunity to make some classic Thanksgiving dishes a bit healthier. That means substituting ingredients wherever you can. Use sweet potato instead of white potatoes, use avocado oil or coconut oil instead of butter, use honey instead of white sugar, use spaghetti squash instead of noodles, use almond flour instead of white flour, and Greek yogurt instead of cream. All of these don’t take away from the flavor but do take away the empty calories.
A thousand calories is a lot to have at one meal, but it’s better than 4,500. If you have lower calorie meals for breakfast and lunch, having a thousand calorie Thanksgiving dinner won’t throw off your daily calorie intake too much. Having a 500-calorie breakfast and lunch followed by the heavier dinner meal still keeps you within the recommended 2,000-calorie limit. So, what does a 1,000-calorie Turkey Day meal look like? A vegetable dip and hummus as an appetizer, a wine spritzer, homemade cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, one serving of turkey, sautéed or baked vegetables, and a slice of pumpkin pie.
Unfortunately, there are just some Thanksgiving dishes that no matter how you prepare them will never be good for you. Marshmallow-loaded candied yams, gravy, store-bought cranberry sauce, and pecan pie are some of the highest calorie items on the Thanksgiving table. After all, there’s a reason many doctors won’t eat those items. With other options like turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, you can still get a lot of the holiday favorites without going overboard with the sugary, carb-heavy dishes.
Preparing something from a box is much easier than doing it from scratch. But you could be adding in a lot of unhealthy ingredients that aren’t friendly to your waistline. Boxed stuffing often contains partially hydrogenated oil, a primary source of trans fats. Canned cranberry sauce has a lot of added sugar, which has a similar effect. Instead, take the extra time to make homemade versions.
It’s very easy to gobble down a Thanksgiving meal. After all, it’s one of the most delicious meals of the year. Try not to take it too fast though. By eating slowly, you give your brain time to catch up with your body, which stops you from eating too much. Also, according to Time, “Some preliminary research has found that chewing until ‘no lumps remain’ increases the number of calories the body burns during digestion: about 10 extra calories for a 300-calorie meal."
Soup is a healthier alternative to some other Thanksgiving food items, but not if it is cream-based. One cup of cream of mushroom soup has almost 100 calories. Instead, add a steamed potato to your creamy soup instead of adding cream. Why? It will add that desirable silky texture without all the fat from cream.
Guests will surely want a few classics on the table like turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing. Then experiment with the rest of the dishes. Use the holiday to try a new (healthier) preparation of vegetables. For example, maple roasted vegetables are Turkey Day-themed, but much healthier than a green bean casserole. Get your family excited about some new dishes and maybe even make them a tradition.
“The first bite is the best, the last is the last, and every bite in the middle is the same,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, dietitian and owner of NutritionStarringYOU.com. “Since you are likely full by this point anyway, slowly savor those three bites and you will save a ton of unnecessary calories.” For those higher-calorie items on your Thanksgiving plate, have a taste while filling up on healthier fare. This prevents you from feeling deprived without overdoing it. And remember, indulging in your favorite dishes on Thanksgiving is OK, and it’s nothing to feel badly about. The holidays are a time to give thanks not only for friends and family but also for your body, and all the amazing things it does for you every day.
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