With Thanksgiving being the mother of all Wear Your Fat Pants holidays, it can be an intimidating day for anyone trying to stay on a specific nutrition plan. Thanksgiving is that rare occasion when it is completely acceptable for an adult to make a meal of various iterations of starchy carbohydrates – mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn, cornbread, bread, and bread stuffing, to name a few – without any snarky comments. Comfort food. Yum.
Because Thanksgiving is a holiday focused almost entirely on eating, it seems inevitable to many that it is going to be a gorgefest, no matter how careful they are about eating on a regular basis. Many people grant themselves what I call the “Holiday Hall Pass,” and swan dive off the wagon into a terrine of mashed potatoes without a second thought. In fact, the average American adult shovels 40% more food into their gullet on Thanksgiving Day than on any regular day throughout the year.
The Calorie Control Council suggests that the average American consumes 3,000 calories at Thanksgiving dinner alone (an improvement over their proclamation in 2016 that the meal was generally a whopping 4,500 calories). Still, given the fact that most of us don’t require daily caloric intakes upwards of 3,000 calories, let alone fatty, sugary, starchy ones, and hello… leftovers, Thanksgiving day – or weekend – can really throw you off your game.
I won’t judge you for feeling that Thanksgiving dinner is worth the splurge. I’m a big believer in indulging, within reason, when it is absolutely worth it. I’m always telling clients that it’s not just about calories, but also about the nutrient composition and digestibility of the food. As “value” is completely subjective, it’s up to you to decide how important it is to eat your face off, or to enjoy certain foods that may not be aligned with your best health, or be digestible by your particular body. And the tough love part: as an adult, you are responsible for dealing with the consequences later in the day or throughout the week if you choose to enjoy a dish that isn’t as health-supportive as it could be.
So before you roll your sleeves up and step into stretchy pants, keep in mind that while it may feel stressful to walk into an environment full of your favorites, or with family members watching your consumption like you’re on the Discovery Channel, there are strategies and resources at your disposal that can keep you focused, or at the very least, mitigate the damage.
Ten Steps to Avoid the Holiday Hall Pass:
Plan ahead. There is nothing wrong with planning, or with asking your Thanksgiving hosts what dishes they are serving. People on nutrition plans often feel uncomfortable causing a fuss or seeming different in front of others. Sometimes they worry that other people will be critical, will perceive them as “less fun,” or will try to sabotage them. With food allergies and sensitivities on the rise, many people are used to discussing menus and sharing ingredients. Knowing the Thanksgiving menu ahead of time will allow you to time to plan your meal, and to bring something of your own if you desire.
Offer to bring an appetizer, side dish, or a dessert for everyone to share. I help my clients recreate recipes that no one would know are also ~ insert shudder here ~ “healthy.” Your host and other guests do not need to know that it is prepared with or without certain ingredients unless you want to tell them. Twice baked squash is creamy and mimics sweet potatoes. A hearty Fall salad with fresh vegetables, fruits, and a sprinkle of aged cheddar cheese is delicious and seasonally appropriate. Dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in bacon. A platter of chilled shrimp. A crustless pie. Possibilities are endless. Coming from someone who has hosted for years, trust me, your hosts will be glad you pitched in.
Plan a brisk morning walk, Turkey Trot or football game with family or friends before you eat. Create a little calorie deficit for yourself before you sit down for the main event.
Remember that there is no such thing as obligatory eating. You do not have to eat or drink anything you don’t want to eat or drink. You don’t have to explain why you don’t want stuffing, or extra gravy, or a glass of wine. Eating someone’s food doesn’t prove your love or devotion to them. If you taste something you don’t enjoy, you do not have to finish it.
Keep in mind that you can eat the equivalent of a full meal just while grazing on apps and pre-dinner cocktails. Survey all the food before making your choices. Skip store-bought foods that you can eat any time. Head for the non-starchy vegetables (carrots, celery sticks, sliced peppers) first, and either skip the dip or put a small spoonful on your plate. Follow with other nutrient dense fare like olives, slices of charcuterie, fruits, or a handful of nuts. Avoid crackers, chips, and anything creamy or deeply fried… save your calories for your yearly favorites!
Watch your alcohol intake. In addition to adding extra calories, affecting your sobriety, and increasing your blood sugar, drinking alcohol before and during dinner can lower your inhibitions and throw you off course with your food choices. Have one cocktail, or ask that your cocktail be served in a tall glass with extra club soda. Or shift to a big glass of club soda with a lime, or water. If you continue to drink alcohol, have at least one 8-ounce glass of water along with each alcoholic beverage you consume.
If you are hosting, consider lightening up some of your favorite recipes or trying something new. This year, we are making a breadless sausage stuffing, pictured above. Looks pretty hearty, doesn’t it? Focus on good fats, fresh herbs and spices, and using sea salt to taste instead of blindly seasoning. Try your hand at a tangy cranberry sauce made with maple syrup, leave the butter off the green beans, or substitute coconut milk for heavy cream. (I can help you with this!)
Remember that food is fuel, not therapy. Holiday time sometimes turns into an episode of “Top My Dysfunctional Family.” If family time causes you stress, keep in mind that comfort eating will only cause more stress and make you feel worse about yourself. Before you dive in to seconds, ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Realize that you are in control of your eating, and that the best way to feel awesome is to remain aware and in control.
Don’t write yourself a blank check. Decide ahead of time which dishes are worth it, and stick to your guns. If you absolutely cannot miss Grandma’s sweet potato pie with marshmallows, but are only meh about the cornbread stuffing, then ignore it and move on. Pace your eating. Eat slowly, chew thoroughly, and savor what you have put in your mouth. Skip going back for seconds, especially if you think you will want to have dessert.
Unless they are health-supportive and/or part of your nutrition plan, don’t take leftovers.
When all is said and done, if you’ve overindulged, don’t shame yourself for eating. Tell yourself that it’s just one day out of many, and realize that if you don’t make overeating a habit, you will stay on course. Wake up on Friday, drink a glass of water, deal with any symptoms or flare ups you’re having like an adult, and climb right back up on that wagon.