Tackling Turkey Day: Strategies for a Healthy Feast


The football teams taking the field on Thanksgiving will bring shrewd strategies and meticulous game plans to make sure they finish the day healthy and successful.

As we tackle one of the year’s biggest feasts, should we do the same?

On the one hand, it’s just one day.

“If you spend the rest of the year eating well and making sure you’re physically active then I think on Thanksgiving you can give yourself a break,” Dr. Paula Amendola-Sekinski, Family Medicine physician at White Plains Hospital Physician Associates.   “Don’t be crazy in your choices, but everybody deserves a day off.”

On the other hand, Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday eating season, which can have significant ramifications on body weight – and health – for the entire year.

“Between Thanksgiving and News Year’s Day, it’s not uncommon to see a person gain 10 pounds if they aren’t careful,” said Dr. Amendola-Sekinski.  “We need to recognize the risks of the holiday season and be thoughtful.”

The Calorie Control Council, a food and beverage industry group, calculates one Thanksgiving meal can total 4,500 calories. That’s more than twice the recommended number of 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for a woman.

A 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the average American gains 1.3 pounds during the holiday season, while a 2000 study in Nutrition Reviews concluded that what’s packed on during the holidays accounts for half of weight gain for the year.

“Even if the average weight gain is only a kilogram (2.2 pounds) each year, over a lifetime it adds up,” adds Dr. Amendola-Sekinski.

This year may not be typical, as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts the usual stream of holiday gatherings and office parties. But the lessons for curbing the dietary impact of Thanksgiving dinner remain the same. The American Heart Association has put together some tips:

Prepare. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, be a bit more vigilant about your food intake. Maybe lose a couple pounds so you’ll wind up with a net zero after the holidays.

Tweak recipes. You can treat yourself to special foods but also have control over how they’re made. Search the internet for a healthier version of a favorite recipe or a substitute for an unhealthy ingredient.

There’s no quick fix for overeating. You can’t exercise your way out of gorging at the holiday table. Exercise is great, but it’s really more about eating less food. It’s calories in, calories out.

Don’t come hungry. Have a healthy breakfast or lunch. Some people try to avoid weight gain by eating very little before the big feast or a party, but that ends up backfiring because they’re so hungry they’re not able to control themselves.

It’s not just about eating. Alcohol has calories too and the more you drink, the less you care – not just about the alcohol but the rest of the meal as well.

Pace yourself. It takes time for the brain to realize you’re getting full. Eating slowly and waiting a few minutes before you go for seconds or thirds can be very helpful.

Beware of leftovers. The holiday table may be full of the most calorically dense foods people eat all year. If there’s more left over, you may be the one suffering the consequences. Sooner or later, those pumpkin pies do get eaten.

As sound as the advice may be, the culinary temptations this time of year are hard to resist.

“Holiday season can be the time when people just let go,” concludes Dr. Amendola-Sekinski. “When there are so many opportunities to eat and so much exposure to high-caloric foods, it’s very difficult unless people are really determined to be careful. But we have to try.”

A portion of this article was originally published on American Heart Association News Stories.