We eat about 1,095 meals a year (assuming we’re consuming three meals a day). Logically, it doesn’t make sense that any one of those has a huge stand-alone impact on health and well-being overall. And yet, come November, so many of us start freaking out about Thanksgiving dinner.
There’s always some advice or headline on how to avoid the storied “holiday weight gain” and exactly how much “damage” that one meal might do. We’ve all seen those statistics about how many calories are in an average Thanksgiving dinner and how many minutes of exercise it would take to “undo” that number.
The great news, simply put, is that there’s really no need to worry about any of this. All of the fear-mongering about calories and big holiday meals says more about our image-obsessed culture than it really does about us. Our bodies are smart and resilient, and delicious holiday food isn’t the enemy it’s so often made out to be. Eating whatever the hell you want at Thanksgiving won’t immediately lead to long-term weight gain, nor will it make you any less healthy.
We asked registered dietitians to explain all of this in expert terms and really put your mind at ease.
A truly healthy diet is incredibly flexible and will look different for everyone.
Before we specifically talk about Thanksgiving, let’s get something straight: There’s no such thing as a perfect diet, and no one food is inherently good or bad.
“A healthy diet is one that honors what your body needs, includes foods you like from all across the spectrum, and allows you to make do with what’s available, when necessary. It’s about being flexible,” said Elizabeth Davenport, a dietitian based in Washington, D.C.
This will look a little different for everyone because we all have different bodies, different circumstances and different lifestyles. But very generally, this means eating regularly, eating a balance of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs), getting adequate micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), choosing mostly whole or minimally processed foods when possible, and drinking enough water, said Nina G. Hall, a dietitian based in McDonough, Georgia.
“A healthy diet also gives you energy and makes you feel good,” she said.
No matter what you eat at Thanksgiving dinner, your body will know how to deal with it.
Say you just finished a heaping plate of your favorite holiday foods, plus two slices of pie (because who wants to decide between pumpkin and pecan?). You probably feel full, maybe a little bit tired. That feeling might be uncomfortable, but it’s also temporary.
“The healthy body does a remarkable job at regulating itself after a big meal via production of various enzymes and hormones to aid in the digestive process,” Hall said. As enzymes break down the food in your gut, your body releases a hormone called leptin, which signals to your brain that you don’t need any more food.
Eventually, the feeling of fullness will subside, but your body’s systems will continue to regulate what’s going on.
“Think of your food intake over the course of any week. Our hunger levels, and what we’re hungry for, really fluctuate day to day,” Davenport said. “Our bodies are super complex and send signals to our brains letting us know what our bodies need.”
If you eat far more than usual at Thanksgiving, it’s likely that you’ll be a little less hungry in the days following. If you eat only mashed potatoes, stuffing and pie, you might find yourself craving things like protein and vegetables later in the weekend.
Feeling bloated after the meal is totally normal, and it will pass.
Bloating might be uncomfortable, but it isn’t unhealthy. In fact, it’s something we all experience sometimes for a variety of reasons.
“Our stomachs are relatively small,” Davenport said. “If you eat a lot of food [at once], your stomach will look and feel bigger because of the volume of food in your stomach.”
Eating smaller meals more often can help minimize this effect, but it just isn’t realistic all the time, particularly on Thanksgiving. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t eat at all before dinner, though.
“If you restrict leading up to Thanksgiving dinner, your body will be sending strong, urgent signals that you need to eat,” Davenport said. “If you’re overly hungry, you’re more likely to eat quickly and then swallow air, which can contribute to bloating.”
She also points out that vegetables are some of the worst culprits for bloating.
“Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts contain fiber as well as [a component called] raffinose, [which our bodies can’t digest]. It arrives in the large intestine without being digested, and the bacteria in our intestines start to ferment that raffinose, which creates gas.”
Also worth noting: Stressing about holiday eating might also be making you feel bloated.
“The brain and the gut are connected via the vagus nerve,” Davenport said. “People who are stressed or worry a lot can experience that stress in their GI tract, So, if you’re worrying about the food on Thanksgiving Day, this could contribute to bloating or other gastrointestinal discomfort.”
A big meal won’t lead to long-term weight gain, either.
There’s a lot of fear surrounding holiday weight gain, and it’s something that’s actually been fairly well-studied. Again, your best bet is probably not to worry about it.
A huge meal will probably lead to a little bit of short-term weight gain, made up of the food itself, and excess water that you might retain because of it. But this is temporary. A 2016 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine followed nearly 3,000 adults in the United States, Germany and Japan over the course of a year. The researchers found that while their weight peaked between Christmas and New Year’s (the average weight gain was 1.3 pounds), about half of the weight gained was lost very quickly, and the adults returned to their pre-holiday weight by April.
Ultimately, the healthiest Thanksgiving dinner is one that’s fun and stress-free.
When thinking about health, it’s important to think holistically. Nutrition plays a role, but so do happiness and social connections.
“If the mind is awash with worry over the fear of overeating, it really prevents you from connecting with the company and your surroundings, and from enjoying the food,” Davenport said.
Worrying too much about what you’re eating might also make stressful holiday moments even harder to deal with.
“Coming to the table worried about the food leaves you in a heightened state,” Davenport said. “That means that if something doesn’t go well — families not getting along, a stressful situation — you might be more affected by the stressful environment.”
And, go figure, worrying about overeating can make you more likely to overeat.
“Stressing about that holiday meal may actually make you eat more of the foods you’re trying to avoid (mostly due to production of stress hormones which may increase cravings for comfort foods),” Hall said. On the other hand, she added, guiltlessly enjoying Thanksgiving dinner will probably lead to a healthier diet in the long term.
“There’s so much joy and connection that can be had from a Thanksgiving meal and communing around food,” Davenport said. “If you give yourself permission to enjoy the food at the table, you’ll find that you leave feeling a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.”
Eat, be thankful, and move on.