Thanksgiving should be crowned America’s national ‘Cheat Day’

With Thanksgiving Day coming up, many dieters are already stressing about losing ground and gaining pounds during a one-day, put-on-the-feedbag and eat-what-you-want bonanza. That kind of splurge is going to ruin diets, right?

Thanksgiving dinner with family.

Image courtesy University

“You can’t gain five pounds in one day,” said Roberta Anding, lecturer in kinesiology at Rice University and dietitian and sports nutritionist for the Houston Astros baseball club. “It defies the law of calories in, calories out.

“I don’t think one day blows you out of the water, as long as it’s that singular meal and it’s not the leftovers and the pies the next day and the pies the day after that. I think it’s the leftovers that often get people,” said Anding, who has also worked as a sports dietitian for Rice University Athletics and the Houston Texans football team and was director of sports nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital for 16 years.

“There’s a lot of controversy around this, but are there 3,500 calories in a pound?” Anding asked. “The answer is probably around there.”

Anding said the average Thanksgiving dinner is around 2,000 calories, but it’s not that one holiday meal that is making nearly three-fourths of Americans overweight or obese.

“If you just do the math … if that was your only day that you did that, in reality you can make adjustments for that, and you can compensate for that over the next week or two to keep yourself weight-neutral. And that to me is oftentimes the goal during the holidays.

“The American way is ‘more is better,’ and that’s what I thinks hurts people in the long run,” Anding said. “A day becomes a week, and that becomes more difficult to undo.”

“Enjoy the holiday, eat what you want that day, but the next day go right back on your regular plan,” Anding said.This is “food season” — the time of year when tempting treats abound, so it can become very difficult to make it a singular event, she said.

“Enjoy the holiday, eat what you want that day, but the next day go right back on your regular plan,” Anding said.

“I think during the holidays people feel obligated to eat everything that’s there, even if you don’t like it,” she said. “I like pumpkin pie, but I don’t love it. So I’m not going to eat pumpkin pie just because it’s there. I’m going to eat apple pie, which I really do love. To me, it’s choosing what you love; don’t choose everything. If my favorite thing on Thanksgiving is stuffing and I don’t care about dinner rolls, then I’ll enjoy the stuffing.”

Anding also pointed out that the host of a dinner gathering can also provide healthy options, even if they are loaded with calories.

“‘Could I try a new vegetable recipe this year? Could I try green beans with toasted hazelnuts? Could I try roasted butternut squash with maple syrup?’ You can make these festive meals actually good for your guests by having more fruits and vegetables available,” she said.

How about a post-turkey day walk to burn off some of the calories?

“A walk around the block after a 2,000-calorie meal isn’t going to do a lot in terms of calorie burning,” she said. But she added, “Exercise is good for so many reasons besides just calorie burning. Consider it part of your holiday stress-reduction plan and a good excuse to get away from the tempting leftovers.”

For people who are on a diet, Thanksgiving Day should be crowned America’s national “Cheat Day,” Anding said. Don’t stress over it; savor the bounty of turkey, potatoes, vegetables, gravy, stuffing, fresh rolls, all of the fixings and dessert, she said.

“Holidays are supposed to be enjoyed with food and family. It is part of every single culture worldwide,” she said. “I don’t think you should be counting calories on Thanksgiving. You shouldn’t be thinking, ‘That’s 250 calories.’ Enjoy it. It is one day and then it is done.”

About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.