Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends, football and feasting. The average American will consume a hefty 3,000 calories on Thanksgiving -- for dinner alone. Drinks, dessert and appetizers can bring the total calorie count to 4,500, according to the Calorie Control Council, an industry group.
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The most delicious Thanksgiving dishes -- mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing and pecan pie -- are loaded with sugar or fat or both. The Calorie Control Council estimates that 1 cup of mashed potatoes contains 238 calories and 8 grams of fat. A cup of green bean casserole comes in at 143 calories and 8 grams of fat, and a slice of pecan pie adds a whopping 456 calories and 21 grams of fat.
Hunter Lewis, editor of Cooking Light magazine, concedes that Thanksgiving can throw your diet for a loop, but he argued that the spirit of Thanksgiving matters more than the food.
“Be engaged at the table and be grateful and thankful,” he told ABC News. “Enjoy yourself and don’t feel guilty [about the food].”
Lewis, however, warned against indulging after the holiday.
“Don’t let one day of feasting turn into five days,” he said.
For those who refuse to give up their favorite Thanksgiving dishes, Lewis said there are ways to make them more heart healthy. Eliminating sausage from stuffing, which Hunter called a “fat bomb,” cuts down on calories; worthy fillers include apples, squash and mushrooms, he said. Replacing the butter in mashed potatoes with turkey stock and Greek yogurt provides flavor without clogging arteries. And forgoing baked brie appetizers and cheese platters with fresh seafood, such as shrimp cocktail, allows for more calories later, he said.
Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of “Eating Mindfully” and “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food,” notes that eating an additional 3,500 calories will lead to a weight gain of 1 pound. Government guidelines on estimated calorie intake vary based on age, gender and physical activity level, but for a woman 26 to 50 years old who engages in moderate physical activity, the recommend daily calorie count is 2,000. For men who engage in moderate exercise and are 26 to 45, the recommended daily caloric intake is 2,600. That number drops to 2,400 for men 46 to 65.
Albers suggests “focusing on favorites” for Thanksgiving dinner and eating mindfully.
“Mindful eating is the opposite of what we traditionally think of on Thanksgiving,” she said. “Consciously choosing what you want to eat, eating it slowly, savoring each bite. It’s not about eating as much as you can. Mindful eating teaches you it’s perfectly fine to have your favorite slice of pie if you make room for it.”
Eating mindfully can also take the pressure off losing the extra pounds. According to a Cornell University study published in September in the New England Journal of Medicine, half the weight gained around the holidays can stick around until the summer months or beyond. The average American's weight rose 0.2 percent during the Thanksgiving holiday, the researchers found. In the 10 days after Christmas, Americans on average weighed 0.4 percent more than they did the 10 days before Christmas.
Eating mindfully matters, but so does moving. Albers advises walking after dinner and even exercising before the turkey is sliced at the dinner table.
“The best advice is prevention,” she said.
Lee Jordan, a certified health coach and senior behavior change specialist with the American Council on Exercise, agrees that exercising pre- and post-Thanksgiving should become a yearly holiday ritual. To burn 1,000 calories, a 185-pound person would need to jog for 90 minutes at 12 mph nonstop for nearly 7.5 miles, according to Jordan. If you’re a walker, prepare to hit the pavement for over 3.5 hours at 3 mph to burn the same number of calories. The ACE has a tool on its website to help individuals calculate how much exercise is needed to burn off calorie amounts.
“Exercising prior will help jump-start metabolism and, more importantly, provides a tangible way for a person to declare to himself or herself that they are committed to their health and wellness,” he told ABC News in an email.
“People tend to significantly overestimate the amount of calories they have burned, [so] if they choose to frame their pre-Thanksgiving exercise as a means to feast and overindulge, they will likely not have a healthy outcome," he added. "However, when a person chooses to frame the same pre-Thanksgiving exercise not as a tool to rationalize overindulging but rather as an investment in their own joy/wellness, the outcome is usually one of empowerment rather than regret.”