It’s almost Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, just the thought of Thanksgiving makes my tastebuds percolate (like the dance from the 90s). Yams will be candied, cranberries will be sauced, and cheese will be macaronied. I’m not even going to bring up sweet potato pies, dressing/stuffing, and the bountiful assortment of roasted [fill in the blank with any meat you can think of]. Just writing about this stuff gives me post-prandial somnolence (that’s the medical term for the sleepy sensation you get after eating; I stopped calling it the ‘itis’ since it affects everyone). As much as these thoughts excite my taste buds, they also make my waistline say “Bruh?” If you asked me for a Thanksgiving relationship status update, I’d tell you, “It’s complicated.”
That may sound odd coming from a doctor who specializes in nutrition, but I’m just keeping it real. My relationship with Thanksgiving is complicated for many reasons (I’m gonna leave out the hotep-ish reasons for now). On one hand, Thanksgiving is a time for celebration deeply rooted in culture and tradition. Food is undeniably an integral component of any holiday. When I think of holidays, I can’t help remembering watching my grandmothers work tirelessly, sometimes while in physical pain, at cooking fantastic holiday meals for my family. I miss them. I appreciate them. My love of food and cooking came from them. Now that I’m responsible for preparing holiday meals, I think about their recipes. My thoughts aren’t limited to their ingredients and technique—I think about the stories behind them and how these recipes were curated over generations. My grandmothers’ candied yams have cultural lineages that extend past their kitchens in Chicago, weaving their way through time and geography, to the deep South, towards my West-African ancestors. With these lineages in mind, it’s hard for me to sacrifice tradition/history and advocate for a Thanksgiving dinner that consists of tofurkey and steamed kale. I don’t know if my ancestors would appreciate those libations.
On the other hand, the holiday weight gain struggle is real. So real, it was on the minds of many of my patients this past week. Everyone viewed the holidays with eagerness mixed with slight apprehension and anxiety due to concerns about gaining weight. People want to celebrate, but not pay the price. Trust me; I get it. For me, pound cake has a double meaning and stuffing isn’t just a dish, it’s a verb. Ultimately, for many of us, the holidays are a time for juggling traditions with the possibilities of overeating and weight gain. So I want to shed some light on holiday weight gain and give some tips on navigating these holiday meals.
The holiday weight gain struggle is real.
Multiple researchers have documented that weight gain around the holidays isn’t fake news. In 2000, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluated 195 people over the holiday season (from the last week of November to mid-January). The people in the study gained a significant amount of weight over those six weeks. They also didn’t lose those extra “holiday” pounds over the subsequent year. In fact, the holiday weight gain represented almost 50% of the total weight gained over the following year for most of the participants. Other studies show that people put on an average of 1-2 lbs around holidays. That doesn’t seem like much, but it can add up over time. Plus, these are just studies. I don’t know what types of ‘spreads’ the participants had at their holiday get-togethers; but in reality, people can easily gain more than just a couple of pounds over the holidays.
Here are a few tips for celebrating the holidays and avoiding the extra pounds.
1. Don’t eat your holiday dinner on an empty stomach.
Everyone has heard shopping on an empty stomach can put you at risk for all sorts of unhealthy purchases. You may not have planned on getting pizza or buying that bag of chips—they just magically jump in your cart when you’re hungry. The same thing applies to holiday dinners. When you’re starving, you’re more likely to go “no holds barred” on the cornbread dressing. You might even try foods that you know ain’t right just because your stomach is empty. Starvation and a touch of salt or sugar can make the worst dish seem like it came straight from Emeril Lagasse’s kitchen. Try eating something healthy before the holiday dinner to slightly fill you up. Even drinking a few glasses of water before the start of your meal helps.
2. Don’t let your family members dictate how much you eat.
Everyone has that aunt or uncle that will judge your plate. They say things like “That’s all you got?” or “I know you want some more of that [something probably unhealthy]?” It’s like they were sanctioned judges at the holiday plate Olympics. They stare at the plate, analyze how many portions of meat and sides you have, look at what dishes you skipped, and assess your plate’s empty spaces. After all that, they seem like they want to hold up a scorecard for your plate like, “I give that plate an 6.5.” Nine times out of 10, this person isn’t the healthiest person at the table. Don’t let them shame you into eating more than you want. Respectfully, hold your ground or at least tell them you plan on taking some food home.
3. Make your own plate.
If you ask a family member to make a plate for you, you should recognize that they don’t know how much you want to eat. They might load up your plate as a gesture of kindness. Words like “some” or “a little” don’t translate into actual amounts. Don’t be surprised if they return with a plate that looks like the Great Pyramid. You are better off taking control of your own plate.
4. Don’t eat while watching TV
Eating while watching TV puts you at risk for mindless eating. I know watching football is a holiday tradition for many people, but it’s hard to pay attention to both the game and how much you’re eating. Avoid mindless eating by being mindful and turning the TV off.
5. Cut down on liquid calories
Your family’s holiday punch is probably loaded with kool-aid, sugar, juice, and ginger ale. It’s like sugar soaked in sugar with oranges floating in it. There could easily be 300-500 calories in each glass of the holiday punch. Drinking your calories on top of eating a lot could be disastrous for your weight. This also applies to alcoholic drinks; ‘skinny’ whiskey isn’t a thing. Real talk, even the gravy may have a lot of calories.
6. Make half your plate vegetables
Typically, veggies don’t have many calories. Even if you cook your greens with smoked meats, it won’t wreck your diet. Plus, the fiber in the veggies can contribute to feeling full.
7. Use smaller plates
It seems obvious, but research shows that using smaller plates may encourage us to eat less. When we see a plate, we all tend to fill it up. Skip the holiday pounds by skipping the big plates.
8. Don’t sit near the serving table
A 2012 study of eating behaviors at a Chinese Buffet found that people who sat near or facing the buffet tended to eat more and make more trips back to the buffet. There’s no reason why you can’t apply these findings to your holiday dinner. To discourage over-eating, I recommend serving the food in the kitchen and keeping it off the dining room table.
9. Be careful with taking home desserts
Desserts are delicious, but they are filled with sugar, butter, and carbs. There’s nothing wrong with eating a dessert during the holidays. But, eating them every day for several days after the holiday is probably not a good look. Enjoy your slice of sweet potato pie, but don’t take the whole pie home. Also, be careful with combining desserts. “Cake OR ice cream” should be a familiar phrase nowadays.
10. Try not to eat too late
There’s a growing body of research that shows that ‘when’ you eat may be almost as important as ‘what’ you eat. The 8 pm holiday dinner might promote weight gain regardless of what you’re eating. Opting for an earlier dinner is likely healthier.
11. Exercise during the holiday season.
We all should try to engage in routine exercise, but the stakes are even higher during the holiday season. If you are going to ‘do it big’ during the holiday dinner, then make sure you ‘do it big’ in the gym. There’s no need to wait for New Year’s to make resolutions. There’s a gym open somewhere right now. (Check out our article on HIIT)
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.