There's nothing like a day of solid eating to get you in the Thanksgiving spirit, but as family members catch up, they often don't realize just how many calories they're devouring over the course of the day.
Experts say people often eat more than a full day's worth of calories in one gravy-laden feast, in part because overeating is as much a part of the holiday as the turkey.
"I think people would be frowned upon if they were, quote, 'dieting' on Thanksgiving," said registered dietitian Jamie Pope, who teaches nutrition at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tennessee. "It’s kind of a socially acceptable day to indulge."
It's a commonly held belief that the average American consumes 3,000 calories during the Thanksgiving meal plus another 1,500 on snacks and drinks, numbers that come from the Calorie Control Council, which is the industry group for diet food companies. That's 4,500 calories in all, and about 45 percent of them come straight from fat, according to the council.
"The average person may consume enough fat at a holiday meal to equal three sticks of butter," the Calorie Control Council said in a statement.
But many have contested the 4,500-calorie figure in recent years, including New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope, who in 2012 tried to come up with the most calorie-laden Thanksgiving dinner she could muster, but only came up with 2,486 calories. She concluded the Calorie Control Council's number was a myth.
The Calorie Control Council did not respond to requests for comment.
Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the nonprofit American Council on Exercise, did his own calculations and said while 4,500 calories for the day may be "liberal," eating 3,000 calories during the meal is probably right on target.
"If you look at how people tend to have that feast mentality for the meal I think that is very likely," Bryant said, adding that if someone had their blood tested after eating Thanksgiving dinner, the fat in it would be elevated for a little while.
Vanderbilt’s Pope said the Calorie Control Council's count seems "inflated," but that doesn't make this a diet meal by any stretch. Pope said the basics of the meal aren't terrible for you, but the embellishments and the second helpings are enough to put the meal over the edge.
A day of overeating won't hurt in the long run, unless it's the start of a six-week holiday binge, she said. Then, the 2 or 3 pounds people gain during the holidays might not come off once January comes around.
Pope recommends people enjoy the festivities but simply be aware of how much they're eating. She said she never recommends weight loss as a goal for the holiday season because between the treats and the lack of exercise because of cold weather and limited daylight, the best that can be expected is weight maintenance.
"You don't have to go hog wild but also realize this shouldn't be the impetus for the loss of constraint going forward," she said. "You don’t want to go paranoid into the holidays. People just have to be aware."
Bryant also recommended going on a run in the morning and taking a walk after the big dinner.
Here's Bryant's breakdown:
Turkey (dark meat with skin): Serving size: Two - three slices (8 oz.), Calories: 430
Stuffing: Serving size: 1 cup, Calories: 320
Green bean casserole: Serving size: 1 serving, Calories: 160
Mashed potatoes and gravy: Serving size: 1 cup + 1/4 cup of gravy, Calories: 240 + 205 (445 total)
Cranberry sauce: Serving size: 1 slice, Calories: 85
Cornbread: Serving size: 1 piece, Calories: 175
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows: Serving size: 1 heaping scoop, Calories: 610
White wine: Serving size: 1 glass, Calories: 120
Pecan pie: Serving size: 1 slice, Calories: 505
Pumpkin pie: Serving size: 1 slice, Calories: 320
Total Calories: 3,170