Go ahead and savor every bite of the mashed potatoes. And the stuffing. And the pumpkin pie.
During the week leading up to Thanksgiving, it's easy to get wrapped up in healthy side dish recipes, tips for avoiding holiday weight gain, and pre-turkey workouts that make room for an extra slice of pie. But for some people, all that strategizing sucks the joy right out of a day that's supposed to be about celebrating gratitude with loved ones over lots of delicious food.
"I tell people all the time, if you're looking forward to Thanksgiving, or any special occasion dining experience, go all out. Eat what you want. Then get back up on the horse again," says Liz Weinandy, RD, a nutritionist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "But for a lot of people, this is easier said than done because they worry one meal makes or breaks everything."
How much does one meal really matter?
One single indulgent meal—even one whole day of high-calorie eating—is "absolutely not going to destroy anyone's metabolism, cause them to gain some tremendous amount of weight, or ruin longer-term goals," says Weinandy. To gain a notable amount of weight, you'd need to continuously consume more calories than your body can burn over the course of several days.
"Let's take a person who consumes 2,000 calories daily and maintains her weight," Weinandy says. "Say she eats 5,000 calories on Thanksgiving. Her body is going to have to store 3,000 extra calories because it can't burn them." But she won't even gain a whole pound. (One pound of fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories.) The amount of weight she'll put on is simply not worth agonizing over, especially at the expense of enjoying the holiday, says Weinandy. Plus, she'll burn all those calories off in the days to come, by returning to her regular eating habits and workout routine.
Craig Primack, MD, an obesity medicine specialist at the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Arizona, agrees that one big meal isn't enough to cause a noticeable physical difference or weight fluctuation. Might you feel the effects of a fatty, sugary holiday dinner in other ways? Sure. "You'll probably feel bloated, slightly dehydrated if you're consuming alcoholic beverages, and potentially uncomfortably full," says Dr. Primack. "But people know this going in."
What really matters, says Dr. Primack, is how Thanksgiving influences your behavior in the following days. "It's worth keeping in mind that you're going into a four-day weekend full of leftovers," he says. "And four days of eating off track can definitely have consequences, like weight gain or un-programming all of your great healthy habits. It's about the bigger picture, not the one meal."
How to enjoy Thanksgiving to the fullest—and then hit the reset button
"Swapping grandma's famous creamy, buttery mashed potatoes for cauliflower mash sounds like a fantastic idea!" says no one. So instead of making culinary sacrifices this year, try this less restrictive, more balanced approach:
Step one: Make a conscious decision to hit pause on your health-focused ways to actually enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, and then press play again once the night is over. "It might sound totally silly, but you can even say this to yourself out loud, or say it in your head leading up to the holiday," Weinandy says.
In the hours before the main event, eat normally, starting with a high-protein breakfast when you wake up. "I don't like it when people have the mindset of, 'oh, I should hold out for the big dinner later and not eat all day,'" Weinandy says. "In doing that, you're already playing mind games with yourself and putting an unhealthy focus on food and calories."
Throughout your gathering, eat mindfully and savor each bite. Give yourself permission to soak up the moment, the people, the food, the flavors. "If you don't eat mindfully and feel the pleasure of it, you're missing the point," Weinandy says. "And when you eat mindfully, you often times don't even eat nearly as much as you'd expect yourself to."
Later on, use your food coma to your advantage. "My number one piece of advice for getting back on track the next day would be to get a good night's sleep," says Dr. Primack. "A bad night of sleep can increase appetite, make it tougher for you to register when you feel full, and slow your metabolism. And you feel lethargic and less motivated to get up and do some physical activity." So pass out early on Thanksgiving night, to make it easier for you to get back on your healthy A-game on Friday.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter
Weinandy also recommends drinking a large glass of water or two when you wake up the next morning to aid digestion, rehydrate your body, and kickstart your metabolism. "And do not skip breakfast the morning after either," she says. "You should never feel like you have to make up for those extra calories by eliminating them at another time."
You may also want to consider preventing a week-long food binge by getting rid of leftovers. "I tell my patients to buy disposable food containers so you can send leftovers home with guests," Dr. Primack says. (Try these leakproof, plastic containers from DuraHome.)
And schedule some of your favorite workouts for the week after Thanksgiving, so you have an exercise game plan in mind and on the calendar, he adds. You'll be back in the saddle in no time.