Tips For Thanksgiving

While food wasn’t necessarily my first go-to when choosing something that would allow me to disappear from life, there is no question that at times I have eaten myself numb.  But that numbness gives way to gastrointestinal pain, which gives way to the creeping sense that I wasted my youth.

We all know that the holidays can be tough when it comes to food choices.  Eating yourself to paralysis lends itself to a lot of sitting in front of the TV, questioning a whole host of other life choices.  Each year a number of my clients will ask what they should do about Thanksgiving.  I’m not the kind of trainer that believes people shouldn’t fully embrace holidays.  The occasional overindulgence can truly be enjoyable.  It is when overindulgence becomes compulsive that it loses its joy (me with alcohol).

Whether you’re just trying to avoid the annual holiday weight gain, or are genuinely afraid of losing control at the dessert table this Thanksgiving, here are some tips that have changed the way I approach holiday indulgence:

Step 1 — Be fully hydrated before you start eating.  Thirst and hunger can often send mixed signals.  Drink plenty of water.  I’m not saying fill your stomach so full of water that you can’t eat.  This isn’t about trying to fool yourself into thinking you’re already full.  It’s about making sure your body knows when it is actually hungry vs dehydrated.

Step 2 — Fill your first plate with turkey (a little gravy is fine), and green vegetables.  Even if the veggies are full of butter and bacon, don’t worry about it.

Step 3 — Finish your first plate and chill out for 5 minutes with a glass of water or iced tea.  If you’re still hungry, get a second plate of turkey and green vegetables.

Step 4 — Chill out for 5 minutes, drink water or iced tea

Step 5 — Eat as much stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes, and dessert as you want.

At first glance, this looks like a competitive eating menu and a one-way ticket to morbid obesity.  But it is really about timing.  A few years ago, my M.O. was to get a serving of turkey, 2 or 3 servings of stuffing, a serving of candied yams, and some cranberry relish in my first plate.  The second I finished my plate, I filled it up with more of the same.  I had plenty of room for dessert, and I wrecked those pies.  These days I don’t even make it to step 5.  So what’s going on?

When we go into a Thanksgiving meal, we’re usually famished.  Our blood sugar is extremely low (and we’re probably dehydrated).  Immediately we jam ourselves with starches and sugars (with a little protein thrown in).  Starches and sugars begin to digest in your mouth before they even reach your stomach.  The pancreas goes into high gear to produce enough insulin to kill the sugar assault.  Because we’ve overdone it on the sugar, the insulin can overshoot the mark, and we begin to receive signals that we need to eat, even though our stomachs are completely full.  I think we can all relate to feeling like we can’t eat another bite, and then 30 minutes later we’re munching on a little of this and that once the starches and sugars have broken down.

When you follow steps one through 5, there is no insulin spike.  Proteins and fibers digest much more slowly, and the pancreas doesn’t have to go into hyperdrive to regulate blood sugar.  The physical food itself is much more dense, but less calorie-dense than the same volume of stuffing and yams.  Your stomach stays full longer, with no new signals to continue eating due to a blood sugar roller coaster.  By the time you get to Step 5, eating as much dessert as you want is likely to include a half slice of pumpkin pie.

Here it is broken down:

12 ounces of dark meat turkey (that’s a lot of turkey) = 588 calories

3 cups of green beans = 132 calories

2 tbsp. butter = 200 calories

2 servings turkey gravy = 100 calories

Total = 1,020 calories


6 oz dark meat turkey = 294 calories

1 serving turkey gravy = 50 calories

2 cups of stuffing = 428 calories

2 cups candied yams = 300 calories

Total = 1,072 calories

At first glance, that appears to be a lot of calories no matter which way you go, and the difference is negligible.  I should point out that this is the kind of volume that I personally eat at Thanksgiving.  I weigh 200 lbs and carry an above average amount of muscle mass.  The real point here is that after finishing the second option, your insulin will be going crazy to reset your blood sugar.  After milling about for an hour, you’ll be ready for dessert and plenty of it.  After finishing the first option (if you can finish it at all), it is unlikely that you will be overly enthusiastic about the dessert table.  It is just as unlikely that you’ll want to eat much stuffing and candied yams.

Give it a try.  I think you’ll be surprised.