Tips for a Happier, Healthier Thanksgiving

Right around Thanksgiving, a million articles pop up on the news about what you should do to avoid the dreaded weight gain associated with the holidays, how you need to detox the day before and after Thanksgiving, or how to burn off all those calories from the food you ate.

There’s a lot of dieting advice going around the internet these days, which can often times cloud the real reason to celebrate this time of year, to be thankful for what we have, not to burn off all those calories you’re about to go eat. This doesn’t mean these articles get it all wrong – Thanksgiving shouldn’t be an excuse to eat ALL THE FOOD. When people overeat, they don’t feel good, which is no fun when you want to enjoy your time with family and friends.

To put things into perspective, most Americans only gain about one pound during the holidays. One pound – this might make a difference in your overall health or sports performance if you’re eating heavy, high fat meals plus desserts every day from November to January, resulting in greater than one pound weight gain…or if you gain one pound every year without losing that one pound during the rest of the year.

But, if you’re an active individual or a competitive athlete, Thanksgiving can act as a rest day from your normal regimen, sit back, relax, enjoy being around family and friends, and enjoy some of your seasonal favorites. If that means you get a piece of pie, so be it! In fact, if you choose your foods correctly, you can enjoy some of your favorite dishes and be fueled up for a workout the next day. No detox, no diet, no restrictions.

1. Don’t skip your other meals on Thanksgiving day.

By skipping meals because you assume you’re going to want to eat massive quantities of food later in the day, you’re setting yourself up to overeat. Instead, try to eat balanced meals (breakfast, lunch). If your Thanksgiving meal is scheduled for lunch time, a light, high-protein breakfast will help hold you over until lunch. If your meal is around dinner time, two lighter, balanced meals will prevent you from going into your meal feeling ravenous and ready to eat one of each food item.

Good options for a lighter breakfast and lunch:

Breakfast: Vegetable and egg scramble with a side of a banana with peanut butter

or 1/2 cup oatmeal with berries, cinnamon, milk and a sprinkle of walnuts

or a couple slices of nut butter toast with a banana

Lunch: Big salad made with mixed greens salad with 2 hard-boiled eggs, 1/2 cup garbanzo beans, 1 cup raw broccoli, 1 Tbsp sunflower seeds and 1 Tbsp balsamic vinaigrette

or 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt with 1/4 cup raw oatmeal, 1 Tbsp honey, 1 banana and                          sprinkle of nuts

or your favorite bowl of warm soup

2. Be aware of portions.

    • The recommendation for what your plate should look like for each meal is: ~1/2 the plate is vegetables and fruit, 1/4 lean protein and 1/4 starches (grains, bread, corn, potatoes, etc.) Your plate should look like this on Thanksgiving, too. Even if the foods are “more unhealthy,” at least you have the right idea on how your plate is divided.
Source: American Heart Association Blog
  • Turkey, especially the white meat, is a great source of lean protein. If you’re going to have a piece of meat, keep the portion to the size of a deck of cards and move on to the other options.
  • Each portion of your favorite foods can have between 150-200+ calories each: 1/2 cup mashed potatoes, 1/2 cup stuffing, 1 cup green bean casserole, 1 biscuit, 1 cup of gravy, several ounces of turkey with skin, a SMALL piece of pie…etc.
  • A reasonable serving of pie is as big as the area between your fingers when you make a “peace sign” – Did you make a peace sign? How does your usual slice of pie compare? 
  • Don’t forget liquid calories – all those holiday drinks (punch, egg nog, hot cocoa, beer, wine, champagne, etc.) add up! Be mindful of how many drinks you’re having that aren’t water and try to replace some of those beverages with regular water.

Calories shouldn’t be your biggest focus, but it is always good to be aware of how much you’re really eating before loading up your plate, and splitting your plate into the different sections can help you keep portions in check.  See tip 3 for tips on choosing foods. 

3. Survey all the options before loading up your plate, and only make one trip. 

This tip is included in Saint Louis University’s Whitney Linsenmeyer’s list of tips for enjoying the holiday without having to wear your sweatpants – Clean Eaters Can Beat Thanksgiving Food Hangover. You don’t have to give up those indulgent foods you love, but by taking a smaller portion and savoring each bite, you’ll really appreciate the food more.

This tip is good for anyone confronted with a buffet eating situation – it can be especially tempting to get heaping piles of a bit of everything the first time around…only to go back for seconds (or thirds) of your favorite dishes.

Instead, survey the food options – choose one serving of protein (turkey, ham, legumes, fish), grains/starches (stuffing, corn, roll, mashed potatoes), and fill the rest of your plate with vegetables (green bean casserole doesn’t count as a vegetable) and some cranberry sauce.

4. Prepare healthy side dishes with a focus on vegetables.

The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that people prioritize plants, instead of focusing on meats (turkey, ham) and starches (mashed potatoes, stuffing/dressing). Even if you’re a meat-lover, there are TONS of seasonal recipes for healthier, plant-based side dishes that help you break away from the traditional green bean goop and creamy mashed potatoes. Load up on the vegetables – they’re high in nutrients and lower in calories.

Deep-orange foods (sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin) are full of antioxidants and fiber, so try to incorporate those seasonal orange foods into your menu for a nutrient boost.

Ideas for plant-based dishes:

Cookie and Kate || 16 Healthy Thanksgiving Sides

Plant Eaters’ Manifesto || Plant-Based Thanksgiving Recipe Ideas

5. Sweat a little!

It’s a great idea to exercise for 30-60 minutes on Thanksgiving (and really, every day!) Some families make it a habit to go on a walk, throw around the football, run a Turkey Trot, the list goes on. If you can find a way to move your body and get the blood flowing, you’re going to feel a lot better than if you sat around watching football and eating all day (not that there isn’t room in your day for exercise, sitting, AND football!)

Do you have any favorite healthier Thanksgiving dishes? 

Want to read more about this topic?

Real Simple || How to Build a Healthier Thanksgiving Plate

American Heart Association || Healthy Holiday Eating Guide

This time of year is a great time to get in contact with the Sanford Sports Science Institute to set up an appointment with the sports nutritionist, or check out our sports testing offerings for athletes of all ages and abilities. Call today to find out more! 606-312-7870