As Thanksgiving nears, the alluring smell of warm pumpkin pies and turkey carvings begin to pervade people’s minds, as does the highlight of the day – the delicious feast, which many tout as their favorite meal of the entire year. Despite it being the favorite feast for such a large number of people, many of these same individuals approach the meal with trepidation, as they fear that they will walk away from it a bloated mess, with much of the hard work they’ve put into the gym covered by a combination of fat and water retention. This state may even seem inevitable for many people.
However, there are a number of ways to minimize the damage done by this delicious meal while also being able to enjoy the holiday treats! Over the years, I have developed a plan that helps me to walk away from the meal feeling stuffed, yet happy knowing I didn’t do myself a measureable amount of harm. Here’s a step by step guide to help make sure that you walk away from the meal with little to no harm done to your waistline:
1: Drink lots of water throughout the day, especially right before the meal. Right when you sit down at the dinner table, drink 16-32 ounces of water before you eat any food. Drinking a large volume of water will make you feel fuller faster and help your stomach signal to your brain that you’re satiated, which will in turn limit your desire to largely overeat during the feast. Not only will the water have helped you become fuller more quickly, it’ll also aid in the digestion of the food and help your body process all of the calories you will have consumed by the meal’s end.
2: Work out on Thanksgiving day. This doesn’t have to be an all-out, 3 hour “workout of a lifetime” session in the gym, but try and do some type of physical activity before you eat the meal. For many of us, we’ll be traveling to family and/or friends’ houses, so I’d recommend squeezing the workout in sometime in the morning before making the drive. If you belong to a commercial gym, you’re probably in luck! From my experience, many chain gyms often have Thanksgiving day hours something similar to 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., so be sure to check with your gym to see if and when they’ll be open Thanksgiving day. And if you don’t have a gym membership, or are already traveling and in a place where you don’t have one, do some calisthenics and go on a run or walk. The number one nutrient and calorie partitioner in existence is exercise, and knowing this, why wouldn’t you use it to your advantage given that you’re going to be eating so many calories on this day?
3: Have your Thanksgiving feast be your lone meal for the day, but snack on some lean meat and veggies beforehand. Before the meal, the only things you should eat are lean meats and vegetables because of their low-caloric density and high nutritional profiles. Snacking on the lean meat will help you hit your daily protein target, and the vegetables will give you vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, all important components of a well-rounded diet that are typically lacking in most Thanksgiving dishes. What I’ll usually do is have about 8 oz of grilled chicken breast and a large spinach salad with either 0 or low calorie dressing when I wake up and at about 4 hours before the feast, and this helps me ensure that I will have met my protein requirements by day’s end, while giving myself a large calorie buffer for the feast (note: depending on your size, I would recommend adjusting the amount of chicken you consume in each of those meals – smaller individuals may only need 3-4 ounces of grilled chicken at each meal to put them at a solid chance of reaching their protein target upon finishing their Thanksgiving meal). If you’re a vegetarian, simply substitute something like egg whites for the chicken. One egg white typically has 4 g of protein, so bigger people will probably want more (I’d probably put down at least 14 or so to replace 56 g of protein from the chicken), and smaller people could probably do fine with 3-6 egg whites instead of the smaller helping of chicken. Assuming you followed my pre-Thanksgiving meal protocol, you’d be at roughly 704 calories total, with about 684 of those calories coming from the grilled chicken (144 g protein and 12 g fat), and 20 of those calories coming from the spinach (3 g carbs and 2 g protein). Having this meal be your sole meal for the day will allow for most of you not to go over your maintenance level calories by a significant margin. What’s more, if you work out on Thanksgiving day like I recommend, you will have an even larger caloric buffer for the feast.
4: Eat the meal! If you’ve followed the protocol so far, you shouldn’t feel any guilt whatsoever when you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve worked out, eaten a hefty amount of protein from the grilled chicken and gotten in some vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber from the spinach salad, had lots of water, and now it’s time to dig in! Also, while eating the meal, continue to drink water as you chow down, which will also further help in making you feel fuller faster as well as aid in digestion.
5: Go on a walk with some people after the meal. I’m sure all of us have felt that hefty bloat immediately after the meal, and maybe you will have eaten so much that you will be physically immobile for a short period afterwards. But, once that extremely stuffed feeling has gone away, go on a nice walk with some people! The walking does a number of things: it helps to reverse the arterial damage that high fat meals can induce, it helps to prevent heartburn by allowing the food to completely settle in your stomach, and it also helps you burn off some of the calories you just consumed in the meal. Another opportunity this walk provides is some time for you to bond more with friends and/or family by giving you a great atmosphere for discourse. The last benefit that I’ve found is that it serves as a nice tool to symbolically end the feasting, and it reintroduces some discipline back into your life so that you’re less likely to make the feast last for longer than that one meal. Sure, I know how tempting it can be to lie on the couch and watch Christmas movies and football right after the meal, but that’s a sure-fire way to get some nasty heartburn. Lying down after a meal dramatically increases your risk for heartburn because the food you have just consumed hasn’t had time to settle in your stomach, which means then when you lie down, it has a greater likelihood of seeping through your esophageal sphincter, which is the valve that connects your stomach to your esophagus. When this food, which is mixed with the hydrochloric acid from your stomach, seeps into your esophagus, it can began to erode tissue in your esophagus because of its high acidity, which over time can lead to painful bouts with heartburn. If for nothing else, walk around and stay upright after your meal for a while because of this! Plus, those movie re-runs and football games aren’t going anywhere, and they will definitely still be there on the television for your enjoyment after you go on the walk!
6: Do your Christmas shopping on Black Friday! Some of you are probably thinking, “What is this guy trying to say here?! I hate the lines!” It may not make sense at first, but I promise it will shortly. After eating such a huge meal that is often very carbohydrate and fat rich, your body will store many of the carbohydrates consumed in your muscle glycogen stores (especially if you’ve depleted them through resistance training). Thus, when you wake up on Friday morning, you will have an ample supply of energy that will help propel you through your shopping day. Since you have to do the shopping anyway, why not place it at a time where it can prove to be most beneficial to your physique goals? By shopping all day on Friday, you will probably end up burning through much of the glycogen stores as well as give your body a stimulus that will signal it to burn the rest of the food that you consumed the day prior for energy. As far as meals are concerned for Black Friday, I would resume your typical meal pattern. If you’re wanting to eat out while shopping, I recommend seeking out healthy, protein and nutrient-rich options, and it would be best to reduce your carbohydrate intake by some in order to further signal to your body to use the stored carbohydrates in your muscles as fuel.
This year for Thanksgiving, give my steps a try, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Let me know what you think!