Stuffed on Turkey Day

For most people, Thanksgiving either means eating or stretching out on the couch after eating.

But how about a different suggestion? Instead of hitting the couch, why not go for a four-hour run, a 30-mile walk or a 5-hour swim?

According to the American Council on Exercise, that’s what it will take for a 160 lb. person to burn off the calories consumed in a typical Thanksgiving dinner.

The average Thanksgiving meal – turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, gravy, butter, rolls, salad, vegetables, pie, whipped cream and various beverages – is loaded with 3,000 calories. If you add the fact that most people also snack before and after the meal, the total zooms to 4,500-5,000 calories.

Besides calories alone, Thanksgiving dinner can include up to 200 grams of fat, the equivalent of six Big Macs, three pans of brownies or four sticks of butter.

But it’s not just about Turkey Day. The tendency to overeat stretches over the entire holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The average person consumes an extra 17,500 calories during this time, an amount that creates a five to seven pound weight gain if not burned off by exercise.

There’s nothing wrong with the traditional holiday meal in and of itself. Turkey is naturally low in fat and full of valuable amino acids. Cranberries contain antioxidants, while sweet potatoes – a “super food” – and pumpkin are full of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, potassium and fiber. Pecans are a good source of vitamin E and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, thought to help lower levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.

No, the problem isn’t with the foods themselves, but with the butter, gravy, mayonnaise, sugar and heavy cream they’re covered in. The second and third helpings aren’t much help, either. Nor are the midnight turkey sandwiches, the eggnog and the extra wedges of pie and ice cream.

Most health professionals agree that a big meal now and then isn’t harmful, and approach holiday feasts as a rare extravagance, suggesting that if people do indulge, they should exercise and eat sensibly for several days afterwards as a means of compensating for the caloric glut.

But for the person heading for Aunt Mary’s legendary holiday meal, the immediate worry is how to prepare for the onslaught of food.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a good idea to skip meals when planning to indulge in a larger meal. After skipping a meal, most people actually end up overeating to compensate.

On the medical side, some sources recommend a small dose of aspirin before the big meal, to keep the blood “slippery” and minimize the sludginess that occurs when the dietary fat-load hits the bloodstream.

All hints aside, the best solution probably lies in sensible moderation.

Starting with soup is one strategy. Soup creates a sensation of fullness and lessens the desire to overeat. Ditto for pre-meal noshing on raw veggies and low-fat dips.

Drinking a glass of water before the meal fills the stomach temporarily, which helps control the urge to eat too much at once.

Specific food choices will help diminish the meal’s overall impact. For example, choosing white turkey meat without skin, mashed potatoes without butter, steamed veggies, water instead of wine and a small piece of pie with no topping can cut the caloric value of the Thanksgiving meal in half.

Portion sizes count, too. By choosing small portions and bypassing second helpings, one can sample a wide variety of holiday foods without too much guilt.

After the meal, and before football and pie, families might consider taking a 30-minute walk. The speed of the walk isn’t important – it’s the activity that aids digestion and helps the body deal with the food load, all while fostering family togetherness.

Walking also stimulates circulation and increases alertness, fighting against the post-meal lethargy that occurs when digestion causes a detour of blood flow to the gut, and away from the brain.

For those who are troubled by indigestion or heartburn, antacids will help, as will a soothing cup of peppermint tea.

In summary, whether your preparations for the coming holidays include exercise, aspirin or your own Thanksgiving pants, remember this bit of advice from Benjamin Franklin: “Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.”

Now, get on out there and enjoy that turkey.