Nov. 24, 2004 — -- If Thanksgiving dinner makes you want to throw your scale out the window, a number of nutrition specialists have a refreshing message: indulge without feeling guilty.
That is, if you do it sensibly.
Recent studies show that Americans gain up to seven pounds on average between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And a report by Health Management Resources, a national weight loss company, estimates the typical Thanksgiving meal contains a staggering 7,100 calories.
But experts on diet and nutrition uniformly believe Thanksgiving can be just another happy family gathering -- as long as you know what to put on your plate.
"You want to learn to think before you eat," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Weight Management Center.
"It doesn't mean don't eat, it means make a better choice. You want to barter for your calories, which means you're going to choose something you do like and not choose something else."
Experts have different approaches to cutting down on calories during the daylong feast, but most agree that the battle starts with portion control.
"The place where we always have our downfall is simply eating too much -- it's not necessarily what we eat," said dietitian Elizabeth Kitchin of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "You only get these [foods] really once a year, so enjoy them, but watch your portions."
Many nutrition specialists add that while it is fine to enjoy foods that are normally considered taboo for those watching their weight in moderation, it is important to keep an eye on items not normally considered standard Thanksgiving fare that may have an impact on caloric intake. Among the culprits are alcohol, nuts and breads.
Some experts suggest ways to ensure healthy foods are included among the high-fat, high-calorie choices on the table.
"Fill up on lean proteins like ham and turkey -- these are going to help keep you fuller for longer, and then also salads and non-starchy vegetables," said Molly Kimball, a sports and exercise nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in Harahan, La. "Offer to bring a healthy dish such as a salad or vegetable so that you know you're guaranteed to have at least one healthy option available to you."
Additionally, most specialists insist on finding ways to include exercise in the daily routine.
"Take a walk after your Thanksgiving dinner," said Fernstrom. "Before the football game, go outside and throw the football with your friends or your family and get a little activity. Just 15 minutes of walking can burn off 100 calories."
No matter what the routine, experts insist that allowing one day of indulgence to spiral into what Kitchin calls the "holiday season of eating" is a surefire way to tip the scales on January 1. Their advice: look at the Thanksgiving feast as an anomaly and forget about it on Friday.
"Thanksgiving is one day -- it's not called Thanksgiving Week," said Sheah Rarback, director of the Mailman Center of Child Development in Miami. "So if you overeat that one day, don't say 'I've blown it, so I'm just going to keep eating through Christmas.' Just remember it's one day out of the whole year."