Talking turkey about Thanksgiving dinner

Talking turkey
(VeselovaElena/iStock, Getty Images)

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday eating season, which can have significant effects on body weight – and health – for the entire year.

The Calorie Control Council, a food and beverage industry group, calculates one Thanksgiving meal can total over 3,000 calories, more than the recommended number of calories for an entire day. And the average American gains 1.3 pounds during the holidays.

So what difference does this one day make?

"If you spend the majority of your time eating well and exercising, my general opinion on Thanksgiving is give yourself a break," said Krista Varady, professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "Don't be crazy, but everybody deserves a day off."

Our experts have some suggestions for negotiating the Thanksgiving table with health in mind. Besides Varady, they are Linda Van Horn, professor emeritus of preventive medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, and Surabhi Bhutani, assistant professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University.

Prepare. "In the weeks leading up to the holidays, be a bit more vigilant about your food intake," Varady said. "Maybe lose a couple pounds so you'll wind up with a net zero after the holidays."

Tweak recipes. "You can treat yourself to special foods but also have control over how they're made," Van Horn said. Search the internet for a healthier version of a favorite recipe or a substitute for an unhealthy ingredient.

There's no quick fix for overeating. You can't exercise your way out of gorging at the holiday table, Varady said. "Exercise is great, but it's really more about eating less food. It's calories in, calories out."

Don't come hungry. Have a healthy breakfast or lunch, Bhutani said. "Some people try to avoid weight gain by eating very little before the big feast or a party, but that ends up backfiring because they're so hungry they're not able to control themselves."

It's not just about eating. Alcohol has calories too, Van Horn said. "And the more you drink, the less you care – not just about the alcohol but the rest of the meal as well."

Pace yourself. "It takes time for the brain to realize you're getting full," Bhutani said. "Eating slowly and waiting a few minutes before you go for seconds or thirds can be very helpful."

Beware of leftovers. The holiday table may be full of the highest calorie foods people eat all year, Van Horn said. "If there's more left over, you may be the one suffering the consequences. Sooner or later, those pumpkin pies do get eaten."