For anyone trying to lose — or maintain — their weight, the holidays can be a tricky time. In particular, Thanksgiving centers around food in many families and homes. So, if you’re watching what you eat, striking a balance between enjoying yourself and staying on track can be challenging. Luckily, nutrition pros don’t recommend abstaining from the things you love. Instead, they suggest following these smart guidelines to ensure you make the most of your holiday — without going overboard.
DON’T SKIP MEALS
“It’s not uncommon for people to skip meals earlier in the day to ‘save up’ for the Thanksgiving feast,” notes Claire Virga, a registered dietitian at Rooted Wellness in New York City. This tactic usually backfires. “By the time you sit down to eat, your blood sugar has dropped, and you are ravenously hungry, making it very hard not to overeat,” she explains. Instead, Virga suggests starting your day with a balanced breakfast and lunch (if you’re eating your main Thanksgiving meal at dinner). “Use these meals to get in a lot of greens and veggies, which you might eat less of at Thanksgiving dinner.”
PLAN SNACKS FOR PREP TIME
If you want to avoid snacking as you cook and get things set up, create a small space on your counter or in your refrigerator with healthful, satisfying and filling foods to snack on, suggests Jill Weisenberger, RD, author of “Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.” “Pick things you really enjoy that aren’t triggers leading you to overindulge.” Some of Weisenberger’s top picks include fruit, dehydrated carrots or beets and Greek yogurt.
MAKE TIME TO MOVE
Set aside time to be active on the big day. “Whether it’s a pre-feast yoga flow, a turkey trot or a long walk with family after the big meal, a little movement goes a long way,” Virga says. “While it can be tempting to nap right after you eat, going for a walk outdoors, even for just 15 minutes, can help with digestion and even help lower blood sugar. Additionally, all that family time can be stress-inducing, so a little exercise will help you get out some of that tension!”
WAIT TO CONSUME ALCOHOL UNTIL DINNER IS SERVED
Aside from limiting the calories you consume from alcohol, there are a couple other reasons this is a good idea. “First, alcohol lowers our inhibitions and can lead us to make food choices we normally wouldn’t. If you plate your food before you start drinking, you’re ensuring you have a clear head when choosing,” explains Krista Linares, RD. “Second, alcohol can send your blood sugar on a roller-coaster ride. Having some food with it will help avoid the dramatic dips and spikes that can happen when we drink.”
MAKE A BALANCED PLATE
“Much of the food at Thanksgiving revolves around sugary sweet desserts, high-fat entrees with creamy sauces and loads of processed snacks,” says Kristen Carli, RD. Being conscious about building a balanced plate can help you feel satisfied at the end of the meal without feeling overstuffed. “At least half of your plate should contain vegetables,” Carlie says. The other two quarters should be lean protein (turkey!) and whole grains or nutrient-rich carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes).
PLAN YOUR INDULGENCES
Thanksgiving is a celebration that only happens once a year. “Encouraging restriction, especially at celebrations or family time, is one of the quickest ways to get someone to give up altogether or even experience a binge,” says Linares. “The second you tell yourself not to do something, that inner rebel comes out and wants to do exactly what you just told yourself not to do.”
Instead of making things off-limits, pick your indulgences strategically. “I encourage clients to pick one or two favorites that they can enjoy without limits or guilt. Usually, these are special foods that only come around at Thanksgiving, like pumpkin pie. This usually calms down that inner rebel, because you know you can enjoy yourself with the favorite foods that really matter.”
CONSCIOUSLY DECIDE WHAT TO SKIP
Just as you should decide which treats are “worth it,” go into your holiday meal with a clear idea of which foods are not worth it. “I’ve heard so many clients say they don’t actually love gravy or sweet potato casserole, but they eat it because it’s a special Thanksgiving food,” says Linares. Instead, “ditch what you don’t like and save room for something you do love.” Brainstorm ahead of time one or two foods you don’t actually enjoy all that much, so skipping them is easy when the time comes.
SIT DOWN LAST
Eating is a social thing, notes Leslie Urbas, registered dietitian and personal trainer. “You’re more likely to go back for seconds if you see others are still eating,” she says. Simply not being one of the first people to start eating can help you ensure that if you go back for seconds, it’s because you’re really hungry and not because you feel like you should still be eating.
EAT SLOWLY WHILE SITTING DOWN
Research shows people tend to overeat when they’re standing or eating quickly, notes Carli. “It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that you are full. Slow down and enjoy the company you’re with.” Regularly practicing mindful eating (and especially on a big food holiday) cannot only make the experience of eating more enjoyable, but it can also help you lose weight long term.
PUT YOUR FORK DOWN BETWEEN BITES
If you struggle to eat slowly, this strategy can really help, saysErin Palinski-Wade, RD. “It sounds simple, but the tiny act of placing your fork down on the plate, picking it back up and getting the next bite ready will almost double the time it usually takes you to eat.” That difference can help you eat more mindfully and feel in control of your portions, helping you feel fuller sooner and preventing overeating.
EAT SMALL VERSIONS THROUGHOUT THE DAY
“Since Thanksgiving might look a little different from the typical lunch or dinner with extended family and friends this year, you might consider having multiple, smaller Thanksgiving meals over the course of the day,” suggests Urbas. “That way, you’re not putting all the pressure on one meal, so you’re less likely to overeat trying to get to all your favorites in one sitting.”
REMIND YOURSELF IT’S JUST ONE DAY
“Follow your healthy habits the days leading up to Thanksgiving and the week after,” recommends Aja Gyima, RD. “This can help remind you that you are still very focused on your healthy eating goals and Thanksgiving festivities are just part of the process.” For instance, if you typically walk 30 minutes a day, keep doing that the week before and week after Thanksgiving. “If you don’t get to walk on the days you’re celebrating, remind yourself you have been walking consistently up until now, and you will continue once the festivities are over.” This strategy also works well to keep eating habits in perspective. Just because you may eat out of your routine one day doesn’t mean you’ll continue to do so. Simply taking that pressure off yourself can make it less likely that you’ll overeat.
DO AWAY WITH GUILT
Some people feel guilt or shame after indulging, but it’s best to avoid this if at all possible so you can get right back to your normal regimen. “This [guilt] will only lead to more overindulging, and it’s often why people go on a bender from November to December 30,” says Sam Presicci, lead registered dietitian at Snap Kitchen. “Whether you ate a slice of pie or an entire pie, no amount of criticizing yourself will improve your physical state.”
Instead of judging yourself, stay positive. Presicci recommends approaching the situation with curiosity. “Ask yourself whether or not you could do anything different in the future to feel better than you do in that moment. If the answer is yes, write down a few ways to approach the situation differently next time. Here’s a secret: One meal or one day of overindulgence won’t derail your progress. That said, the endless cycle of shame, guilt and then going overboard will.”
Originally published November 2019, updated with additional reporting
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