The turkey is baked in the oven. The pies are cooling on the counter. And you might be thinking, “Thanksgiving is not the time to be too strict about what I eat.”
Health experts say – you might be right.
“I don’t want people to think too much about their relationship with food during Thanksgiving, when the holiday should be about friends, families, being thankful and counting our blessings,” said Dr. Colleen Spies, associate professor of in Medical Dietetics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus.
The holidays tend to bring out all or nothing about nutrition, said Crystal Dunham, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. People are either “YOLO! It’s the holidays! I’m going to let all the rules go!” or “It’s the holidays and I won’t touch anything unless it’s celery.”
“And I think there’s a way for us to exist in the middle,” Dunham said.
That middle ground allows for enjoyment, peace and health, she and Spees said. And while some people, including those with diet-related medical conditions like diabetes, may need more careful planning, everyone can make simple, healthy last-minute choices that improve the day.
Among their offerings:
Don’t skip breakfast
Eating to prevent overeating may seem counterintuitive, but fasting in the morning can lead to problems later.
“A lot of people get into the habit around the holidays of saving room for a big meal,” Dunham said. “But a lot of times when we do that, we show up to meals too hungry. So we end up eating beyond comfort limits and are 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 fat-free, high-protein yogurt — “helps us make more informed decisions throughout the day,” she said.
Think in advance how you will eat…
Most of us know what to expect from our family’s traditional meals, Spies said. So have a plan for the obstacles. Visualize filling your plate with whole grains and colorful fruits and vegetables, she suggested, as recommended by the American Heart Association and in the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The basics of healthy eating are the same no matter the day, Dunham said. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are full of fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar and has other heart-healthy qualities. “And fiber usually helps us feel fuller a little longer,” she added.
… and drink
Alcohol can be one of the biggest holiday challenges for adults, Spies said. Once people start drinking, “their inhibitions come out, often along with healthy behaviors.”
If drinking is usually a part of your holiday celebration, take it easy by diluting spirits or making wine spritzers, Spies suggested. Instead of drinking back-to-back cocktails, alternate drinking water with a squeeze of lime in between. You can also try a cocktail, she said, or just fill your glass with unsweetened soda or iced tea. (Federal Dietary Guidelines say nondrinkers shouldn’t start and that drinking less is better for your health than drinking more.)
Don’t be fooled
When it comes time to cut the turkey, many prefer white meat because it has less fat.
“People think, ‘Oh, I’m going for a healthy option,’ and then they slather it on, adding saturated fat and sodium,” Spies said.
So, focus on the whole plate, Spies emphasized, and keep portions reasonable. You can leave room for a taste of traditional Thanksgiving foods that are salty and fatty, especially if it’s outside of your usual routine.
“It’s good to have a few bites,” Spies said. “You don’t need a huge portion.”
Room for dessert?
The same thinking applies to dessert, Spies said. If you’re going to have a pie, make it a small piece and easier with whipped cream. Or choose fresh fruit instead.
Dunham said it’s possible to enjoy desserts without overdoing it. But holiday meals highlight another aspect of healthy eating, she said, that goes beyond physical nutrition.
“Cultural foods and traditions are really important,” she said. “And I think sometimes cultural foods nourish our bodies and souls just as much as physical foods.”
So when the sweet potato pie comes, she’ll eat a piece. “For me, it’s Thanksgiving,” she said.
It’s one day of the year, Dunham said. “It won’t make or break the progress I’ve made in my health so far.”
Make movement part of the plan
Physical activity, even a little, is a good idea every day. It can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, help maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
A little group exercise can shift the focus of the day in a fun and healthy way, Spies said. “It really prioritizes what Thanksgiving is about over the food.”
So, take a walk around the block with grandma, or go play with the kids in the backyard, Spees suggested.
Or try dancing, Dunham said. “Our family had a Soul Train line last year.”
Remember what you are there for
Small choices make a difference to health over time, Dunham said. And understanding carbohydrates, proteins and fats is important for daily nutrition.
But holiday meals are more, she said. “I think joy is a great component on the plate, especially when it comes to Thanksgiving,” Dunham said. And meals that bring joy “will be meals that are filling and satisfying regardless.”
Space will also think beyond the kitchen.
“Enjoy the day,” she said. “Focus on your relationships with people. Life is short. Enjoy the day.”