After a blood test on Monday the technician advised me to “Eat healthy!” when I got up to leave. I laughed and told him, “I’m a dietitian.” He smiled sheepishly and then responded, “I should be asking you how to survive Thanksgiving.”
We enjoy an abundant and adulterated food supply especially this time of year, and surviving Thanksgiving is often just one more challenge in surviving the entire season. For some the stumble starts around Halloween. Even if you’ve managed pretty well so far, our traditional celebration of harvest can readily trigger a slippery slide. Conversely, a delicious traditional meal can enhance your sense of well being. What makes the difference?
MOST HOLIDAY MEALS PREPARE US TO SURVIVE WINTER
Foods served at Thanksgiving aren’t inherently unhealthy. The turkey provides a great source of protein, even when you pick at the skin or fight over the wings to get a better ratio of skin to meat. Most meals include vegetables or a salad. Up to this point the meal holds promise, however the sheer quantity and decadence of starchy and sugary treats trips up many thankful eaters.
Our ancestors likely appreciated the capacity for both starches and sweets to enhance survival. Carbohydrate rich foods trigger a release of insulin that allows every cell in the body to use glucose for fuel, but insulin also drives fat storage. As an extra bonus, enough insulin protects fat stores, effectively blocking your ability to use them fuel–a perfect recipe for surviving winter or just packing on the pounds.
Starving over winter isn’t in the cards for most of us , unless you count an overly austere New Year’s resolution. Yet we feast at Thanksgiving like we anticipate hibernating for months. We laden our plates with piles of stuffing and mashed potatoes, yams with or without the brown sugar and marshmallows, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, gravy, and pie. Every one of these traditional treats drives insulin levels higher, with many families adding their own traditional foods to the mix.
Years ago my mom would sneak a bowl of ravioli or gnocchi onto the table. Other families mix it up with macaroni and cheese, cheesy grits, cornbread, and hush puppies. I’ve spied tamales, dumplings, and even latkes in 2013 when Thanksgiving and Hannukah fell on the same day. It seems most cultures of the world know how to survive scarcity.
Our bodies know how to survive scarcity, too. In fact we have a multitude of ways of adapting to eating too little, and only one response to eating too much. Excessive food intake drives inflammation and poor metabolic health whether we gain weight or not.
Ultimately each of us gets to figure out how to manage the sheer quantity and variety of refined starches and sugars at a holiday meal. Some choose to indulge for the day and be done. Others find that once they overindulge it feels close to impossible to stop the slide. As a result some people rigidly adhere to their diet despite all the temptations, and some keep sliding. The scientific literature calls it, “What the hell effect.”
I find that the extremes don’t work for me at all. I don’t want to feel sick or uncomfortable after our Thanksgiving meal, but I also don’t want to feel deprived. So I’ve explored the middle ground, I’ve learned to develop a sense of discrimination and choose to eat what I enjoy the most
For years I tried a taste of everything and ate more of my favorite–usually the sweet potatoes dotted with butter and cinnamon. Of course, I always saved room for pie.
More recently I realize I don’t really care for stuffing, and neither does my family. This year I’m trying a mushroom and sausage dish instead. In addition, I readily skip dinner rolls and mashed potatoes, mostly because it is easy to enjoy either at any time of year.
I guess I am lucky that I don’t care for nor crave traditional cranberry sauce. My favorite is more of a relish made with oranges, pineapple and walnuts. I add about 1/10 of the sugar called for in the recipe to maintain the bright, fresh taste.
THANKSGIVING WITH ALL THE TRADITION AND NONE OF THE GUILT
By eating what I prefer and identifying the one non-negotiable (pie), I enjoy all the deliciousness of a Thanksgiving feast without overdoing the carbs or the calories. There’s no guilt because I make strategic decisions and savor every bite. I stay in what I call true control, which essentially allows us to hold onto our power by making choices about what and how much to eat.
With turkey and yams, cranberry relish, a vegetable and salad on the plate, I’m basically filling up on protein and produce. I’ll allow myself a glass or so of wine, and I’ll taste the mushroom and sausage “stuffing”. But mostly I’ll save room for a small piece of pumpkin pie and possibly a bite of the pecan.
By choosing what I like the best and honoring how much is enough, I’ll enjoy the meal, the evening, and the next day, too. And leftovers allow us to enjoy Thanksgiving all weekend long as well.
What’s your strategy to enjoy the holiday without regret?