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Stuff the turkey, not yourself: Tips for a healthy Thanksgiving

by Laura Schocker
Nov 25, 2008

Thanksgiving Day is all about counting your blessings instead of your calories.

Turkey smothered with gravy, candied potatoes and pumpkin pie are as traditional as watching football or offering thanks around the dinner table with family and friends.

Yet some local experts caution that over-eating on Thanksgiving, and throughout the holiday season, can undo months of healthy diet habits and expand waistlines into the new year. Keep these simple tips in mind to make this Thursday healthy - and just as happy.

The day of the feast

A typical Thanksgiving meal can pack between 2,000 and 3,000 calories. That's more than most people need in an entire day, says Jennifer Ventrelle, a registered dietitian at the Rush Nutrition and Wellness Center at Rush University in Chicago. She suggests that people focus more on maintaining weight rather than losing it during the holidays.

Many people plan for this large evening meal by fasting during the day, says Gretchen Peyton, a registered dietitian with the Center for Partnership Medicine at Northwestern Memorial. But the sacrifice will throw off the body’s metabolism and make binging more likely later, Peyton says. Instead, she suggests a healthy breakfast, a light lunch and a small snack, such as yogurt or whole wheat crackers with low-fat string cheese.

“It’s very important that you avoid the fast,” Peyton says. “If you arrive at the party overly hungry, you might wind up over eating.”

Using healthier substitutions while cooking the meal is another way to reduce the calories and fat in the Thanksgiving meal, Ventrelle says. Try using skim milk for a recipe that calls for cream or whole milk, she says. Use two times the number of egg whites for a dessert that calls for whole eggs. Sugar substitutes such as Splenda in desserts also will cut calories and carbohydrates in half.

She also suggests upping the amount of fiber in the meal, by substituting whole wheat bread in stuffing recipes or adding a quarter cup of ground flaxseed to desserts. “Fiber fills you up more so you’re likely to eat less,” Ventrelle says. If a dessert recipe calls for white flour, use half whole wheat flour and half white flour, she suggests.

Before the turkey

Snacks and appetizers before the main meal are a common pitfall for people watching what they eat, says Peyton. Even a few handfuls of nuts can total to an extra 400 calories, she says. Instead, reach for the shrimp cocktail or vegetables with low-fat dip. Once you fill your plate with these lower-calorie options, move away from the appetizers. “Head to the other side of the room,” Peyton says. She suggests bringing your own healthy dish for you and other guests. “Chances are there’s somebody else watching their waistline.”


Use the dinner plate as your portion guide, says Ventrelle. She suggests filling half of the plate with lower-calorie foods, such as vegetables and fruits, leaving the other half for protein and starch. “I usually tell people to keep their starch about the size of their fist,” Ventrelle says. “Protein portions should be the size of their palms without their fingers.”

Another trick is to switch your entree and salad plates, Peyton says. Use the larger plate for salad, vegetables and seafood and the smaller one for fried foods, high fat meats, cheesy mashed potatoes and creamy dishes. “Enjoy a smaller portion of the high calorie, guilty indulgences,” Peyton says. “Usually a taste is enough.”

And before loading up with seconds, Ventrelle suggests a 20 minute wait. That's how long it takes the brain to register whether the stomach is full. “If you still really feel like you want more 20 minutes later, go ahead and have more,” Ventrelle says. “Allow yourself to recognize your hunger cues.”

Oh, those heavenly desserts

Sure, go ahead and sample a bit of everything on the dessert table. But Ventrelle says to cut off a bite-size serving. That way, you can try it all without eating multiple full-size servings.

Peyton suggests avoiding pie crusts, which are often loaded with high-calorie butter and nuts. “Just eat the filling of a pumpkin or cherry pie,” she says. “Or have a smaller slice and fill the rest of your plate with berries for dessert.”

If you blow it

Sometimes, people over eat at Thanksgiving and then give up on eating healthy for the rest of the season, Ventrelle says. “Don’t throw your entire day or entire week or rest of the year out the window just because you feel like you over ate at one meal or one entire day,” she says.

And Peyton agrees. “One day is not going to make or break your healthy eating plan. If you overdo it, no worries,” she says. “Get back on the right track.”