Ideas to keep Thanksgiving healthy and happy

By | November 21, 2023

The turkey is roasting in the oven. The cakes cool on the counter. And you may be saying to yourself, “Thanksgiving is not the time to be too strict about what I eat.”

Health experts say – you may be right.

“I don’t want people to think too much about their relationship with food on Thanksgiving because this holiday should be about friends, family, gratitude and counting our blessings,” said Dr. Colleen Spees, associate professor of medical dietetics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus.

Holidays tend to bring out an all-or-nothing attitude toward food, said Krystal Dunham, a registered dietitian in Tulsa, Oklahoma. People are either like, “YOLO! It’s the holidays! I’m going to give up all the rules!” or “It’s the holidays and I won’t touch anything except celery.”

“And I think there’s a way to exist in the middle,” Dunham said.

This middle ground allows for enjoyment, peace of mind and health, she and Spees said. And while some people, including those with diet-related illnesses like diabetes, may need more careful planning, everyone can make simple, last-minute, healthy choices that will brighten their day.

Their suggestions include:

Don’t skip breakfast

Eating to prevent overeating may seem counterintuitive, but starving yourself in the morning can cause problems later.

“A lot of people get into the habit of saving room for a big meal when they’re on vacation,” Dunham said. “But when we do that, we often arrive too hungry to eat. We end up eating past the point of comfort and being miserable for the rest of the evening.”

A simple breakfast — a bowl of cereal or oatmeal with some fruit or granola and low-fat or high-protein yogurt — “helps us make more conscious choices throughout the day,” she said.

Think about how you eat in advance…

Most of us know what to expect from our family’s traditional meals, Spees said. So have a plan for the hurdles. Imagine filling your plate with whole grains and colorful fruits and vegetables, as recommended by the American Heart Association and the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, she suggested.

The basics of a healthy diet are the same no matter the day, Dunham said. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar and has other heart-healthy properties. “And fiber usually helps us feel fuller for a little longer,” she added.

… and drink

Alcohol can be one of the biggest holiday challenges for adults, Spees said. Once people start drinking, “their inhibitions disappear, often along with their health behaviors.”

If drinking is typically part of your holiday celebration, consider carving out some time by diluting spirits or making wine spritzers, recommends Spees. Instead of drinking back-to-back cocktails, alternate drinking water with a little lime in between. You can also try a mocktail, she said, or simply fill your glass with unsweetened sparkling water or iced tea. (The federal dietary guidelines say that people who don’t drink shouldn’t start, and that drinking less is better for health than drinking more.)

Don’t deceive yourself

When it’s time to carve the turkey, many prefer white meat because it contains less fat.

“People think, ‘Oh, I’m choosing a healthy option,’ and then they pour sauce on everything and add saturated fat and sodium, Spees said.

So focus on the entire plate, Spees emphasized, and keep portions reasonable. You can leave room for a sample of traditional Thanksgiving dishes that are salty and fatty, especially if this is outside of your usual routine.

“It’s OK to eat a few bites,” Spees said. “You don’t need a big portion.”

Room for dessert?

The same goes for dessert, Spees said. If you want cake, make it a small piece and add the whipped cream sparingly. Or opt for fresh fruit instead.

Dunham said it’s possible to enjoy dessert without overdoing it. But holiday meals highlight another aspect of healthy eating that goes beyond physical nutrition, she said.

“Cultural foods and traditions are really important,” she said. “And I think that cultural foods sometimes nourish our bodies and our souls just as much as food nourishes us physically.”

So if there is the sweet potato pie, she gets a piece of it. “For me, it’s a Thanksgiving thing,” she said.

It’s one day a year, Dunham said. “It will not affect or detract from the progress I have made so far with my health.”

Make exercise part of the plan

Physical activity, even a little, every day is a good idea. It can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, help maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

A small group exercise can change the focus of the day in a fun and healthy way, Spees said. “It really puts the emphasis on what Thanksgiving is about, rather than the food.”

So take a walk around the block with Grandma or play in the backyard with the kids, Spees suggested.

Or try dancing, Dunham said. “Our family had a ‘Soul Train’ line last year.”

Remember what you are there for

Small decisions matter over time for health, Dunham said. And understanding carbohydrates, proteins and fats is important for daily meals.

But holiday meals are more, she said. “I think joy is a great part of a plate, especially when it comes to Thanksgiving,” Dunham said. And meals that bring some joy “will definitely be filling and filling.”

Spees will also think beyond the kitchen.

“Enjoy the day,” she said. “Focus on your relationships with people. Life is short. Enjoy your day.”

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