Top strategies for minimizing Thanksgiving Day effects on health
So it’s that time of the year where things can come off the rails. Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way! Thanksgiving is a holiday that can start a spiraling down effect with healthy habits. Many people I’ve worked with over the years go on autopilot from Thanksgiving - New Years and go back hard when the calendar turns to a new year.
One of the reasons Thanksgiving is so problematic is the amount of food consumed in a typical Thanksgiving dinner. It’s estimated that an average American will consume 3,000 calories on dinner alone. If accounting for drinks, dessert, and appetizers you could see calories reach another 1,000-2,000.
Unless you’re Michael Phelps during his heavy training days for Olympic gold those excessive calories are not going to be put to work, but storage. Now, I’m not here to say this type of consumption should be banned and thrown out (I am however not promoting excessive eating to the point of discomfort and pain - mindful eating still need apply). It’s a special time of the year spent with loved one’s and a lot of tradition and emotion drives this type of eating. In fact, there is some promising evidence that cycles of feast and famine may be beneficial for our health (think back to ancestral living and how we evolved). What I’m hoping to do is provide strategies to minimize the damage and effect it does for you so you can enjoy yourself and not worry so much about ruining your diet and exercise habits. If someone isn’t feeling like Thanksgiving ruined them or they “failed” their goals then it’s more likely they stick to healthy habits throughout the holiday’s instead of going on autopilot until the New Year.
These tips will vary from beginner to advanced in application. Any one alone will provide you benefit and make the day go much smoother. If you want to do a couple or even all of them then go at it! The more you apply the more mitigation you’ll get from the potential negative effects.
*When I say negative effects I mean a body that is likely sedentary for the day and then consuming a lot of calories that will predominately go to energy stores (body fat) and high inflammation levels from the sitting and over consuming of calories.*
1: Intermittent fasting (12-16hr) or 24hr fast (advanced)
Fasting, it’s all the rage right now and a rabbit hole that would take quite a while to fully dive into. With that said, applying it on Thanksgiving is a powerful and worthwhile strategy in my opinion. The mechanism of fasting is simple, don’t eat for x amount of time. This means zero calories for the time you choose to fast. Things like black coffee, and tea are acceptable. You could even stretch it to zero calorie sweeteners if you absolutely need it (I don’t recommend it personally), but zero calories is the goal.
Typically a fast starts upon finishing your last bite of food and goes until the next calorie enters the mouth. This is usually done from dinner until “break”fast. For beginners, intermittent fasting is a good strategy on Thanksgiving Day to get some of the benefits. To start, 12-16 hr is recommended and going on the lower end is probably best if you’re used to eating first thing in the morning. An example of this for 12 hours would be stop eating by 8pm the night before Thanksgiving and eating breakfast at 8am the following day.
The biggest reason is recommend employing this technique is because of the vast amount of calories an average person will consume at Thanksgiving dinner. Unless you have blood sugar issues or are a diabetic, it is completely fine to go without eating for a good while without worry. The calories that you’re consuming for breakfast and lunch are unnecessary knowing that a potential 3,000-4,000 are coming later in one big meal. Now, if you’re one of the 5k types or have some crazy workouts planned for the day then this may not be the best strategy for you. However, if like most who have traveled to see family and are enjoying each other’s company for most of the day (aka sitting and relaxing) the calories for breakfast and lunch really just aren’t necessary in my opinion.
Will this be easy? Absolutely not! You’ll feel hunger pangs and probably get cranky (so measure the worth of that before applying a long fast), but you’ll be surprised at how quickly that subsides as your body shifts into “ok we got this, let’s burn some of the excess energy stores to keep you going” mode. I will say, if you’ve never tried any fasting protocol before then a 12 hr is probably the way to go and no more. It is after all a stressor that the body has to adapt to. What that means is that someone who’s done this already will have a much easier time then someone who is used to eating late and eating upon waking. The body just isn’t efficient at functioning well without frequent calories entering the body and going right into a long fast right out of the gate can be extremely difficult.
2: Fasted low intensity cardio in the morning
This one goes perfectly with #1 and can be a strategy to extend an intermittent fast. The body likely has plenty of energy stored from the dinner the night before and this low intensity cardio sans eating is a great way to use some of it up. Why would you want to do that? Well, doing so puts the body in a position to take calories consumed later and use them primarily for energy over storage.
The primary thing we're trying to go after here is the energy stores of glycogen. Glycogen are the storage form of carbohydrates in the body found primarily in muscle and the liver. When the body has used up those stores or is running low then the body shifts into more fat utilization to meet energy needs and demand. This is also a great strategy to become better at utilizing fat as a fuel source and not become dependent on carbs and glycogen stores.
When it comes to doing this the key is "low intensity" and avoiding cardio that likely makes you burn and sweat. This is because first thing in the morning the body has a natural rise in cortisol (stress hormone) to get you primed and ready for the day. The last thing the body needs is another big dump of that on top of it's natural secretion. Significant cardio can do just that and we don't want to add more stress on a day we're trying to optimize and mitigate it's effects.
The best option for this is to just do a light walk for around 30 minutes. Any activity you can think of or prefer that may differ is just fine though! The key is to keep it at a low intensity level, especially if you're not used to moving around early in the morning without a quick breakfast (you can still have coffee but has to be black!).
3: Cyclic keto for the day with carb refeed at dinner
You've probably noticed by now that many of these tips have a similar theme and overlap. This 3rd one follows up each of the two before and further optimizes them! Keto is popular and has tons of buzz in the health and fitness world right now. Just like fasting, it's a topic that's best served for another day. The reason it's being mentioned now is because of the boatload of carbs likely waiting for you in desserts and other foods at the Thanksgiving meal.
Carbs have their place in the diet for various situations and are not inherently bad as you may have been led to believe. Carbs are great for storing energy to be used by things like the muscle for performance and in turn are better consumed on more active days. Since a typical Thanksgiving Day likely involves a lot of relaxing around the house with family (unless some of these techniques are applied!) then consuming a good amount of carbs before the flood gates open isn't ideal nor necessary.
To accomplish this all you have to do is limit total carbohydrate intake to <20g for the day and then refeed and have at it for the Thanksgiving dinner. This is no small feat nor easy for those used to a good amount of carb consumption. If you apply this with some of the strategies done before then chances are you'll dip into a little ketosis and feel a bit off if it's your first time. Because of that, I tend to lean on this being an advanced technique for those that have dabbled in ketosis before so they don't deal with some of the first time negative effects of shifting into it.
Similarly to not jumping right into a 24hr fast, a good beginner strategy for this would be to limit carbs for the first meal of the day and keep them as low as comfortably possible before dinner. For someone who can't handle a full on <20g before dinner that may be anywhere from 20-100g (the key here is to just try and keep them lower than typical baseline consumption). Making sure that the carbs are coming from whole food sources and not from things like processed foods further helps solidify this strategy.
Some good foods to accomplish this would be things like eggs, bacon, sausage, various meats, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, salad mixes, veggies, really anything that's predominately fat/protein and lower on the carb end. I list salad mix and veggies because I think it'll be quite difficult for most to over consume the carb content found in them. Salad mix is a perfect healthy base for a meal and would be great for a light lunch with some protein and healthy fat added to it. In fact, you'd be surprised at how long a meal like that would sustain your hunger and may allow you to do something like an intermittent fast, one meal, then the big dinner later.
4: Mid-afternoon strength training session with fast until dinner
Upon completing a strength training session the body is in an extremely heightened state to absorb calories consumed and shuttle them to things that were worked. The old adage was that eating immediately or as soon as possible after a workout would be the best for optimizing this, but newer research shows that the body still maintains this for hours and eating asap is not necessary. When you strength train things like muscle glycogen is depleted and carbs consumed later will be able to replace these stores upon eating again.
Doing a mid-afternoon workout is the perfect strategy for priming the body for a big feast later and putting your body in a position to put those calories to work instead of them being converted to fat tissue. A strength training workout also makes the body more insulin sensitive so when the insulin spikes from the big meal later the cells will respond better than they would have had a workout not been done. This keeps blood sugar levels at a better level and could potentially prevent that dreaded post Thanksgiving meal sluggishness or need for a nap.
Since you'll likely be traveling and not having access to a gym it's important to know that a simple body weight strength workout will suffice in this case. Doing something like the 7-minute workout is simple, portable, and a great way to accomplish this mid-afternoon strength training session. If you have other things you like to do then go for it! As long as the muscles are being worked and a strength training stimuli is being sent to the body, you'll reap the benefits of this and prime the body better utilization of the calories to come.
5: 10-20 minute walk post dinner
If there is one thing that I would recommend over all the other's this is it. I've talked before about the benefits of a walk post meal, but it's worth mentioning again. Just by walking for a short period after a meal can improve digestion and help your body break down and absorb all of those nutrients you have coming in from the feast. The digestive system runs from mouth downward in a vertical fashion so it makes sense that standing puts everything in it's optimal position to utilize gravity and proper alignment of organs. Each step taken is a small force that can act as a assistant to the movement necessary in things like the intestines to drive food further down to be digested more.
Another huge benefit of the walk is the effect is has on post-prandial glucose. If you did a strength training session earlier you'll have some more help here, but if not a walk is still my preference. Post-prandial glucose is the rise in blood sugar a meal causes. It's common that a huge meal like one on Thanksgiving causes a huge spike in blood sugar, followed by a significant insulin dump, which then usually lowers the blood sugar below baseline causing grogginess and tiredness. A walk immediately after can help lower that spike of blood sugar and in turn the amount of insulin released.
One thing to consider here is what to do when the weather is bad? What I'll do at home is carve out a route and sort of pace back and forth with a timer on. If that isn't doable then the next best thing would be to do anything but sit down. Simply standing for an extended period of time is going to use more muscles and energy over being completely relaxed while sitting and also keep you in a good position for digestion.
So, that's all of my recommendations to make Thanksgiving be a holiday you can enjoy without fear of wrecking your body. I personally am going to try a bit of all of these, but remember that doing just one is better than doing none at all. If I had to pick one as my most recommended, go for the walk after the meal.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!