A Healthier Outlook on Thanksgiving Day
Eating Right
August 24, 2023
A Healthier Outlook on Thanksgiving Day
Diverse group standing near turkey in kitchen

Maybe you enjoy Thanksgiving because it signifies the beginning of the holiday season; maybe you enjoy it because it brings the family together, or maybe you just love all the delicious food. No matter the reason, Americans’ affinity for Thanksgiving is widely held.

According to results published by Statista Research Department, Thanksgiving has surpassed Christmas as Americans’ favorite holiday, with 96% of Americans taking part in the celebration. The most popular Thanksgiving dishes are turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, with 70 percent of those surveyed saying it’s not a proper Thanksgiving meal if there’s no turkey.

It’s no secret Thanksgiving provides a bountiful feast, which is the original basis of the gathering after all, but it also gets a reputation for having a bountiful calorie count as well, which can strike anxiety, guilt or shame among many guests at the holiday table.

That’s why we spoke with Danielle McClure, a registered dietitian on the staff at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and Kaylee Jacks, a sports dietitian at Texas Health Sports Medicine, to discuss a healthier outlook on the big meal this year, no matter if you’re a fan of forgetting your diet for one day or you still would like to celebrate with more health-conscious choices.

Remember the Reason for the Meal

Since the beginning of time, food has brought people together, and it reminds us of family, traditions and culture, and that’s something McClure says she hopes people focus on during the holiday versus any negative thoughts you may have.

“Thanksgiving is about traditions, family, love, remembering loved ones and being thankful,” McClure explains. “Nutrition is only ONE aspect of living a healthy life — these are other very important pieces of wellness as well. My true advice is to do your best to drop the negativity. A few days a year celebrating is not a detriment to a healthy lifestyle. As someone who has chosen it as a profession, I obviously deem nutrition very important. However, it truly shouldn’t be a top priority on a holiday.”

Head into the Holiday with Mindfulness & Forgiveness

If holiday indulgences are something you struggle with each year, or you’ve made some healthier life changes this year and you’re worried the holidays will derail all of your hard work, McClure suggests creating goals for the season and prioritizing them around a healthy mindset, not about eating changes.

“A shift in focus is a powerful thing. For instance, let’s say you eat a large piece of Granny’s delectable key lime pie. You could focus on feeling guilty for eating a high-calorie, simple sugar item or you could enjoy every bite because it tastes great AND it puts a smile on Granny’s face as she watches you enjoy her love and efforts,” McClure explains. “The feelings of guilt we sometimes experience around food are strongly pressed upon us by the outside world. Working towards a happier reaction to food is tough, but like everything else it takes practice and positivity. Holidays are the perfect place to start!”

Get Creative

Whether you’re the one cooking the meal or leaving with enough leftovers to feed a small army, there are ways you can “have your cake and eat it too,” during the big day and beyond.

If you’re the one preparing the meal, try swapping out the oil you add to cakes or desserts and using pureed prunes or applesauce instead. Nix that traditional pastry crust for an oatmeal crust, or get rid of it altogether and make a crustless pie with an oatmeal crumble topping. And instead of using heavy icings or toppings, try a light whipped topping instead.

In creamy casserole dishes, Jacks suggest subbing higher-calorie items with Greek yogurt, low-fat sour cream or skim milk.

“Green bean casserole is a very popular dish for Thanksgiving, which is typically higher in fat and calories,” Jacks says. “Try cooking green beans and avoiding the heavy, thick creams or sauces or using Greek yogurt of skim milk to add some creaminess instead.”

Also think about your vegetables more creatively. There are many veggies that can act as bases for more traditional dishes. For instance, Jacks recommends adding steamed cauliflower to your mashed potatoes to lighten up the dish without altering the taste or texture, or using the vegetable as a pasta substitute in mac and cheese.

“This is a great opportunity to try new things this year, especially if you’re not able to travel or see the people you typically have in the past,” she adds.

Even if you’re not quite ready to finagle with changing up cherished family recipes, you can try swapping one high-calorie carb item, like a casserole, for a veggie or fresh salad, or adding those items to the table if they’re typically not present.

If you’re the one leaving the gathering with enough leftovers to turn Thanksgiving Day into Thanksgiving Week, McClure says not to worry, you can integrate those leftovers into healthier meals moving forward.

“I am a huge believer that ANY food can fit in a healthy eating pattern. If there’s absolutely one tip I would give out to maintain a healthy eating pattern after the holiday, it’s to make half of your leftover plate fruits and veggies,” McClure says.

“Then the other side could be leftover stuffing, casserole, even pumpkin pie. Healthy eating is not about being perfect. It’s about being mindful. This tip is my all-time favorite because it has nothing to do with restriction or guilt.”

And if you’re worried that one day of indulgence may snowball into a holiday season of indulgences, both Jacks and McClure suggest giving yourself grace and forgiveness, recognizing that the holidays are about celebrating other types of wellness.

“Some people may not eat anything the day before, the day of or the day after to help counteract the big Thanksgiving meal, and that’s not good. It’s going to throw your blood sugars and hormones out of whack,” Jacks says. “Enjoy the day, and then the next day get back to your normal eating habits. Enjoy your meal, and if you’re going to eat a little more than you normally do during that meal, allow yourself to do so and the very next day don’t go too far one way or the other, just get back on track.”

Come Prepared

Jacks recommends eating a good, balanced breakfast Thanksgiving morning, which will not only keep you satiated leading up to dinner, but you won’t be tempted to overindulge because you haven’t eaten everything all day.

While both Jacks and McClure’s primary advice heading into the big day is to drop the worry and have a great time, there are things you can do to make sure enjoying the meal doesn’t turn into feeling overfull and miserable hours later.

Focus on building your Thanksgiving plate as so:

  • 3 half-cup servings of carbs,
  • A quarter plate serving of protein,
  • Fill the remainder with veggies.

After you’ve built out your plate, McClure suggests starting your meal by focusing on protein, which will most likely be turkey, then moving on to veggies, and lastly, the carbs.

“Protein makes us feel the fullest for the longest amount of time and veggies have fiber, which also helps with satiety,” says McClure.

Also, give yourself some time before getting seconds, ideally about 20 minutes or so.

“Sometimes we can eat faster than the body sends signals to the brain,” McClure explains. “This may mean we return for seconds before our body tells us we’re full, then an hour later we might find ourselves on the couch waiting to feel like we can move again!

“Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. If someone in your family made something, I encourage you to try it. But, if you have someone hounding you to eat more after you’re done, practice polite decline. Let them know you loved the taste you had, and you can’t wait for leftovers!”

If you find yourself not rooting for Team Healthy Substitutes or Team Portion Control, McClure has one last suggestion to keeping those calorie counts down this holiday season, and it might just become a new family tradition.

“Increase activity and exercise. Both of these things have AMAZING (but different) health benefits,” McClure explains. “Maybe your family would take to a new Thanksgiving tradition like a family walk, game of football, exercise challenge or a field day! One thing we’ve done with family members of all ages is stand in a circle and bump a volleyball around. We keep count and try to get the highest number we can! It doesn’t take much strategy for the little ones and grandparents can participate too. Another family I know of sets up obstacles and tug of war, etc. and has a competition. Get creative!”

The Takeaway

While Thanksgiving has garnered a reputation as being a very food-focused holiday, it’s not always about the food. Nine out of 10 Americans agree Thanksgiving is more about who you’re spending the day with versus what you’re eating.

After all is said and done, McClure says it’s more important than ever before to recognize Thanksgiving Day for what it is — a time to share delicious food and great conversation with the ones you hold nearest and dearest to your heart.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk and work in nutrition. I’m also grateful for the holidays finally coming around and being able to celebrate,” she adds. “I hope everyone gets to enjoy some happiness this holiday season.”

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