Can Thanksgiving be a healthy holiday? Yes, it can!

By Anne Snabes
Medill Reports

How can you stay healthy on Thanksgiving? For starters, don’t skip breakfast to save room for an extra slice of pumpkin pie.

And have a plan before you fill your plate with food, says Eileen Vincent, assistant director of Clinical Nutrition Research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Vincent spoke with the Medill News Service about how to eat healthier on Thanksgiving, and she said her recommendations can apply to anyone.

Vincent recommended getting a good night’s sleep before Turkey Day and eating a meal in the morning, which both are ways to regulate your appetite. At the Thanksgiving meal, try to “mentally preorder” your food — or decide what to put on your plate before serving yourself. Vincent also recommended substituting some Thanksgiving dishes with healthier options. For example, green beans almondine is a healthy alternative to green bean casserole.

She said Thanksgiving is the start of the winter holidays, a time when people have less inhibitions. People consume more alcohol and high-calorie food during the holidays, which lowers their self-regulation of their appetite, according to Vincent.

Let’s start with Vincent’s advice on sleep. She said sleep helps you regulate your appetite, as appetite-controlling hormones are reset during slumber.

“So getting about seven hours of sleep a night is the first important thing for anyone approaching the holiday season,” she said.

On Thanksgiving morning, Vincent recommends eating a light and healthy meal, such as Greek yogurt with fruit. And then before going to the family gathering, she recommends eating a snack. You do not want to “go all day” without eating, she said. When you skip meals, your brain will “rev up” its appetite-regulating hormones, which can lead to overeating.

Vincent suggests bringing a healthy appetizer to the family gathering, such as raw vegetables or apples with cheese. Vegetables can make you feel full.

“If you fill up on the high fiber, high water content vegetables, that actually fills your stomach up, so it sends signals to your brain that it’s full,” she said.

Once the Thanksgiving meal begins, she advises scanning the table and deciding what you will put on your plate before starting to serve yourself food. She said to cover half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with turkey (a serving the size of a deck of cards) and a quarter with starch such as mashed potatoes (a serving the size of a ball). And then, if you’re still hungry after one plate, she said you can have seconds of “whatever,” but “hopefully” the vegetables.

She recommends bringing a healthy dish to the gathering, such as green beans almondine. And when it comes to turkey, she said that the skin is “the worst part of the bird.” She also recommends eating light meat instead of dark meat and bypassing the gravy.

Chicagoan Beatrice Pacyga said her family roasts carrots for Thanksgiving, and they usually prepare a salad.

“I think last year we made a salad that had like apples in it and like cranberries and walnuts in it,” she said.

For dessert, Vincent said you can cut slivers of the different dessert items you want so that they in total equal a slice of pie. She said healthy desserts you can bring to Thanksgiving include a Jell-O mold with fruit or a “crustless” pumpkin pie made with low-fat evaporated milk.

Natima Neily, a law student in New Jersey, said she thinks there is a culture of not eating healthily and overeating on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She added that when you are in a grocery store in November, you will observe pumpkin-flavored donuts and pies.

“Your options end up getting reduced because there’s this push of fall flavors and things like that,” she said.

Photo at top: Servicemen eat a Thanksgiving meal in New York City in 1918. (Underwood & Underwood/ War Department)