Thanksgiving is easily our favorite holiday. it's a time to celebrate loved ones, lean into gratitude, and indulge in delicious seasonal flavors.
but indulgence can become gluttony if left unchecked; a Thanksgiving dinner can often pack more than a full day's worth of calories into just one meal! The good news is that it's possible to enjoy the holiday with a sense of abundance and fulfillment without falling off the weight loss wagon. So with much appreciation and thankfulness, we present 9 proven tips to help you Live Full this holiday season!
tip 1: eat veggies & protein first
Fill up your first plate with nothing but protein and vegetables (preferably ones that aren't loaded with butter, salt, oil, bacon, and cheese – we'll talk more about these sneaky calories in tip #5).
Protein is the most filling macronutrient, and important for maintaining muscle mass no matter your fitness goals. Plus, while each gram of protein is 4 calories, your body uses a calorie of energy to digest each gram of protein. That means protein is effectively only 3 net calories per gram.
Vegetables like brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus, and leafy greens in a salad are loaded with filling fiber and have a low caloric impact, meaning you'll fill up a lot of stomach space without overdoing the calories.
Honorable mention goes to roasted sweet potatoes, carrots & butternut squash, they are a little higher in calories and have a fair amount of carbohydrates (and usually added sugar around the holidays), but are very filling, nutritious, and easily in a category above the refined carbs like bread rolls.
By the time you go back for a plate of delicious buttery carbs, you won't have the stomach space to eat as much. Allow yourself to enjoy some stuffing, mashed potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, and all the pie you can handle; you'll find that you want to eat less of them because you've prioritized filling up on nourishing, nutritious foods first.
tip 2: minimize alcohol & sugar
Loading up on sugar, empty carbs, saturated fats, and alcohol will leave you with that sickly “I have to unbutton my pants and lay down for a while” post-meal sensation. Not to mention that it's one of the quickest ways to pack on unwanted body fat.
Alcohol is especially damaging, as it not only turns into sugar in your body, but also slows metabolic function in general. This means that when you're drunk, your body is burning fewer calories than usual because it's busy trying to metabolize the alcohol instead.
It's okay to enjoy yourself, but portion control goes a long way when when it comes to the things that can harm you the most. Try using smaller plates for dessert and only eat desserts that are special for the holiday, the ones you can't get the rest of the year:
Aunt Judy's famous pecan pie and Mom's pumpkin cheesecake? Definitely.
The store-bought cookies and twinkies that your weird cousin always brings? That's a hard pass.
For alcohol, your best bet is to avoid sugary mixers and carb-heavy beers or ciders. Wine is a little better (especially red), but your favorite liquor with seltzer and lemon juice on the rocks will maximize alcohol while keeping calories down, while the ice and citrus helps to reduce the burn.
Alternating between alcohol and water is also a good technique for minimizing alcohol's negative effects. Stay hydrated by always having a glass of water after each alcoholic beverage you drink.
tip 3: drink more water
Hunger and thirst can feel similar without us realizing, so a lot of the time you can curb food cravings as soon as they start with calorie-free, life-giving H2O. This also works because water can take up room in your stomach to simulate feelings of fullness – down a couple of glasses before the big meal and you'll probably notice your appetite is smaller than usual.
Staying hydrated is important well beyond the holiday season for so many reasons, but there's no better time to start than now!
More than half of the human body is composed of water, and it is involved in almost every process our bodies do. Drinking more water means your body can work better in virtually every way, from your brain function to digestion to the strength of your muscles, and even breathing – your lungs are 83% water.
Water is especially important to help offset a high-sodium and carbohydrate-heavy holiday meal. It also makes digesting such a large meal much easier on your body if you are well hydrated. Plus, as an added bonus, it'll help ease your hangover the following day if you're the type to enjoy a glass (or bottle) of wine with your holiday meals.
tip 4: indulge mindfully
It can be easy to get caught up in paying attention to something else while you eat: the game or parade on the tv, an interesting conversation, scrolling through photos of your friends celebrating on your phone, or any number of other holiday-themed distractions.
The problem is, distracted eating is one of the easiest way to pack in extra calories. Researchers at the University of Liverpool analyzed 2 dozen other studies on distracted eating found some convincing conclusions:
On average, eating while distracted increased the amount eaten by about 10 percent, compared to not being distracted. But even more amazingly, it also increased the amount a person ate at a later meal by more than 25 percent (even without a distraction at that subsequent meal). In total, distracted eating could increase the amount of food consumed by up to 50 percent!
In contrast, enhancing memories of food consumed at an earlier meal reduced the amount eaten at the following meal by about 10 percent.
This tells us that mindful eating can be one of the most effective methods for reducing portion size and calorie intake. So chew slowly and thoroughly, taking your time with each bite rather than picturing the next bite of stuffing while you're still chewing the previous one.
Allow yourself to explore your meal with a beginners mindset, as if it's your first time ever tasting turkey with cranberry sauce. Also consider experimenting with things like putting the fork down between bites, or even just alternating which hand holds the fork for each bite – studies have shown these techniques increase mindfulness, help you feel full faster, and reduce calorie intake.
Be sure to pause and take a deep breath throughout the meal and check in with yourself; is your stomach still hungry or do you just want to keep chewing on something delicious? Awareness is key to enjoying food quality over quantity.
tip 5: be aware of sneaky calories
Butter and sugar, even when slathered onto broccoli, don't magically become more nutritious. They counteract many of the benefits of the vegetables with the wrong kind of fats and inflammatory, insulin-spiking sugar.
Veggies can be like trojan horses for unwanted calories – keep that in mind when making yourself a plate, and look out for signs of excess calories like shiny glazes and creamy sauces.
Combine that with tons of sodium and carbs as well as a historically expansive dessert selection and you have a recipe for a meal loaded with far more calories than it would seem at first glance.
It can be helpful to prepare a dish or two ahead of time and bring them to your holiday dinner. Make recipes with natural, whole foods and good quality ingredients. That way you know you'll be able to fill your plate with something decently healthy even if everything else at dinner is indulgent and calorie-rich.
If you do cook, don't add too much salt or oil and make easy swaps to cook a healthier version of some favorites. Whip sweet potatoes with an egg instead of butter to keep them creamy, sweeten them with honey (more nutrients and less processed sugar than alternatives), and add cinnamon, which slows sugar absorption and reduces blood sugar spikes. Or try making chocolate frosting with cocoa powder, vanilla extract, and whipped avocado.
Be a food magician; nobody has to know how healthy your cooking is when it's this delicious!
tip 6: prepare ahead of time
There are several ways to maximize success before you even sit down for dinner.
In the days before the big meal, cut back on calorie intake by about 30%. Studies have shown that consuming fewer calories can lead to an ongoing reduction in appetite. In effect, it “shrinks” your stomach when you eat less than you're used to, much like overeating leads to a larger appetite in the future. Keep weight gain to a minimum and feel full quicker on the day of your big meal by eating less leading up to it.
Exercise is also great for reducing appetite while also increasing basal metabolic rate and burning off a few hundred extra calories to lessen the impact of a binge. Try to fit in an energizing workout that morning: go for a long walk, watch the parade and do pushups & squats or your preferred body-weight exercises during commercial breaks, or do resistance training to get the added metabolism boost and extra calorie burn that you get from weight lifting or high intensity intervals.
Working up a sweat will send your body into fat-burning mode and motivate better decisions at the table. You won't want to ruin all that progress you made exercising earlier once it's dinner time, whereas you may feel like you may as well continue eating for pleasure rather than nutritional value if you've already been making bad decisions.
Finally, while we all love to fast before the big meal to save room for the good stuff, eating a decent lunch with protein, healthy fat, fiber, and low-calorie / high-volume green veggies ahead of time can keep you from that second slice of pumpkin pie at night.
tip 7: beware the “buffet effect”
Have you ever felt completely full by the end of a meal, like painfully stuffed, but you somehow still have room for dessert? Almost like you have a second stomach just for dessert? Turns out that's a real thing… sort of.
While you don't have a literal second stomach, research has found that the more varied the foods in a meal, the more you'll eat. That means a diverse offering of flavors, textures, scents, colors, and even temperatures can lead to overconsumption.
While this blog does not endorse bland Thanksgiving food, it is worth being aware of how our minds can trick us into biting off more than we can chew.
Plus, hyper-palatable foods like sugary desserts or buttery bread rolls simply “go down easier.” Because they taste so good, your brain tells you that there is still value in eating more even when your stomach is screaming for you to stop.
Try to pay attention to internal cues such as not being hungry anymore rather than external cues like whether the plate you piled high with food is empty. An obsession with joining the “clean plate club” will not help you, especially in a buffet-style meal.
tip 8: have an “accountability buddy”
You'll find success comes easier with a buddy to hold you accountable.
It helps to choose someone that you know has health-conscious goals just like you, and make a pact before you see or smell any of the delicious foods. Agree which foods are not allowed, which ones need to be limited, and what you think should be fair game to eat unlimited portions of.
If you see your accountability buddy going for something that you both agreed to avoid, give them a nudge. If they keep going for it, remind them of your pact and make sure they are forced to make a conscious decision to eat something on the banned list. If after all of that they decide they still want it, let them – you can only have absolute control over your own decisions.
If they do fall off, don't let their poor decision making influence your own – your buddy having a weaker resolve than you is not a good reason to throw in the towel yourself. In the end, self-reliance is most important, but having another person you are accountable to can be hugely helpful for encouraging good decision making at dinner.
Just another reason to be thankful for friends and loved ones 🙂
tip 9: cross the finish line
A meal is nourishment, not an endurance sport or a sprint to eat as much as possible as quick as possible – so don't wait to cross the finish line when your plate is clean, wave the checkered flag when you feel full.
Eat slowly, be mindful, and enjoy each bite of food – pay attention to the flavors, smells, and pleasurable sensations you feel. Listen to your body's cues when it tries to tell you that you're stuffed, and calmly inform the voice in your head that's saying “just one more slice of pie,” that it's a terrible idea.
A useful trick to signal the end of your night of eating is to have a subconscious marker that you're done eating. a breath mint, stick of gum, or brushing your teeth are all good methods for marking the end of eating time. Not only will the refreshing minty flavor this cleanse your palate, it's also a sign to your body that no more food needs to be eaten this evening and effectively convinces your body that you're done for the night – midnight leftovers don't count as the next day!
Combine as many of these tips as you can, even if it's just 1 or 2, and you should have an easier time keeping the extra holiday weight away this season.