Your Guide To Staying Healthy (Read:HAPPY!) This Thanksgiving

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Each year, the approach of autumn also signals the advent of the holiday season. In many ways, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Catching up with long lost cousin Gina and great uncle Tony around the Thanksgiving table, all while shoveling down mom’s famous pecan pie? Count me in. But all of this comes with a price. Holiday weight gain + bloating + food coma? Thanks, but NO THANKS! Extra weight gain associated with the season can detract from all of the other exciting holiday-esque activities going on around us. The question remains: Is it really worth it? The holiday season is often thought to be the curse of the dieter’s existence, and while it has been claimed that we all gain as much as five pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the National Institutes of Health and Certified Nutritionist Rick Collins* indicates that it’s really only around one to two pounds, although already overweight people tend to gain more. This may not seem like a big deal and is probably less than you thought, but the research here shows that this weight gain tends to accumulate over the years. In order words, one or two extra pounds over the course of ten years= 10-20 pounds in overall weight gain! All of these facts aside, the goal here is not to expect everyone to eat only steamed vegetables and dry turkey on Thanksgiving (never going to happen!), but rather to provide some helpful tips to gradually incorporate into our lifestyles over the next few months. The result? A healthier you, without even realizing it! Who actually wants to follow all of those New Year’s-gym-slave-resolutions anyway?

1. Get Active: It’s all about the exercise! The days of beaches and bikinis are long in our past come Thanksgiving time, often replaced by more hectic schedules due to school and other commitments. This can leave less time for the gym, which is the first catalyst in winter weight gain. According to Dr. Susan Finn, who also happens to be the Chairman of the American Council for Health and Nutrition, we should aim to create a deficit between calories burned versus consumed. Next time you’re at the gym, try to lengthen your routine an extra 20 minutes. Another tip: savor the next few beautiful weeks of fall weather by going for a walk outside in between classes or work. According to Dr. Connie Diekman, former President of the American Dietetic Association, these extra bursts of exercise will counteract the negative effects of poor eating habits during the holidays and help you metabolize food more quickly.

2.Lighten Up: This works especially well if your family is hosting Thanksgiving this year. Diekman explains that many Thanksgiving recipes are laden with extra fat and sugar, and it’s simple to skim away extra calories by replacing certain ingredients with lower calorie versions. Try incorporating healthy changes to Thanksgiving staples such as mashed potatoes, dips, casseroles, and even desserts. You may find it’s easy to cut calories by using low fat or fat free sour cream in mashed potatoes, less butter, and fat free chicken broth for gravy. Collins also makes an important point that extra rolls, buns, and bread are empty calories, and certainly not worth it! After all, you can go to the local convenience store and grab a loaf of white, processed carbohydrate-ridden bread any day. Save the calories for the good stuff, and load up on veggies (no, green bean casserole doesn’t count) to increase fiber and fill you up. As far as desserts are concerned, healthy alternatives to traditional favorites can be found on www.eatingwell.com, a food and nutrition website that boasts hundreds of articles and recipes to help you lead a healthy lifestyle.

3. Dark vs. White Meat Showdown: If you’re part of the minority that loves the tender and allegedly more fatty dark meat, don’t despair: According to Collins, there’s not much of a difference between small portions of the two cuts of turkey. Three ounces of skinless turkey breast has 115 calories and 1 gram of fat, while the same portion of dark meat has 135 calories and 3 grams of fat. When eaten in moderation, both options provide excellent sources of protein, which will keep you satiated and help deter you from having that extra slice of pie. And speaking of pie…

4. Is Pumpkin Pie a Guilt Free Dessert? According to the ADA, many of us often overlook the health benefits of pumpkin. The association suggests that swapping your pecan or apple pie for pumpkin can allow for a guilt-free Thanksgiving indulgence. Pumpkin, which is actually considered to be a vegetable, is low in fat (only one gram per canned cup!) and high in fiber (eight grams per canned cup!) Additionally, it’s loaded with essential nutrients such as Beta Carotene, Vitamin C, Potassium, and Vitamin K. It may even play a role in cancer prevention, according to the National Cancer Institute. Not all opinions on pumpkin pie are positive, however. Nutritionist Rick Collins explains that eating a fruit salad consisting of mixed berries or a piece of dark chocolate is a far more nutritious option. “A piece of dark chocolate offers the benefits of the flavanoids found in coca, which are rich in antioxidants. Look for at least 85% cacao content.” Collins further elaborates that while pumpkins are very nutritious, most pies are loaded with fat, sugar, and calories. When it comes to pie, the best bet is to always exercise portion control.

5. Don’t Starve Yourself: Granted, the words “starving” and “Thanksgiving” are generally not found in the same sentence. In this case, I’m referring to Thanksgiving morning. Many of us fast the whole day leading up to Thanksgiving dinner in order to “save up” for the big meal, but experts say that this isn’t the best idea. According to Diekman, eating a small but nutritious breakfast with protein and fiber takes the edge off of your appetite and allows you to make more discriminating choices when it comes to food and beverages. Collins also suggests “drinking plenty of water and grabbing a handful of almonds or nuts in the hours before your big meal to take the edge off of hunger and support wise portion choices.”

6. When All Else Fails, Remember These Two Words: PORTION. CONTROL. Most experts, including Collins, agree that you can really eat anything you want on Thanksgiving, as long as it is all in moderation. Collins offered an alarming statistic: In recent studies, the Department of Agriculture estimates that during the 1990’s, total annual food intake rose by a whopping 140 pounds per person. Try to go for options that are holiday favorites, because you can’t enjoy them on just any typical day of the year. Easy and healthy versions of green beans almondine, stuffing, candied yams, and many other holiday favorites are available online, again at www.eatingwell.com, among others. If possible, avoid second helpings, but if you do make a few unhealthy decisions on Thanksgiving, don’t sweat it: this day only comes once a year! As long as you don’t let one bad decision lead to a string of continuously bad eating habits, you should be able to easily bounce back. Another helpful tip? “Don’t cook too much food yourself, or be sure to let friends and family make off with fattening leftovers, so that the one-day Thanksgiving feast doesn’t spill over into multiple days,” says Collins.

With all of this being said, don’t stress yourself out if you have an extra bite of pecan pie. Gathering around a big table and enjoying a delicious meal with those you are closest with is one of the greatest pleasures of the Season. A little extra indulgence is expected! “Focus on eating especially “clean” the day before and after each holiday. Try to avoid temptations at your workplace. And in the big picture, keep in mind that Thanksgiving is just one day out of 365. The problem for most people isn’t what they eat on Thanksgiving, but how they eat the other 364 days of the year!” says Collins. If you maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout the year, Thanksgiving and those few other special holiday meals can be looked upon as a day you deserve to treat yourself. So this season, allow yourself to eat, drink, and be merry while still maintaining a fit conscience.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

* Rick Collins is a lawyer and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS) with a background in personal training and bodybuilding. He is the co-author of the diet and exercise book, “Alpha Male Challenge” (Rodale). Find him online at www.rickcollins.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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