A Personal Trainer's Obligatory Thanksgiving Blog Post
A statement I often hear from clients the week following Thanksgiving is that they blew it on Thanksgiving Day. My thought is always to shame them.
Have they no self-control that they can’t abstain from deliciously prepared foods, many of which produce feelings of nostalgia!? Weaklings!
If this were true—enjoying Thanksgiving is for weaklings—I am chief among them.
Admittedly, I don’t know if people are still authoring articles on healthy alternatives to traditional Thanksgiving dishes, but if they are, pluck them.
Now, if you enjoy healthy alternatives, have at it. But if you’re led to believe that you “blew it” simply because you enjoyed traditional Thanksgiving fare, please don’t.
Often times this belief that you blew it comes from stepping on a scale the day after your feast and seeing your weight is up 5-7 pounds. But take heart, feaster, most of that weight is not fat but water.
Several factors affect water retention. For every gram of carbohydrate your body stores, it stores 3-4 times that in water. This has a huge impact on water retention [and your subsequent weight gain]. So, too, does sodium. And stress. All of which are in abundance at Thanksgiving. (And let’s not forget to include an increase in beverage consumption and the stool weight from the food you did eat.)
One pound of fat is 3,500 calories (kcal). To gain five pounds of fat, you would need to consume an ADDITIONAL 17,500 kcal in one day. Do you know who can do that? Hafthor Bjornsson, a.k.a. The Mountain, from Game of Thrones. Do you know who can’t? You.
According to the Calorie Control Council, the average American consumes 3,000 to 4,500 kcal at their Thanksgiving celebration. Even if you ate “normally” the rest of the day, you’d fall well short of 17,500 ADDITIONAL calories.
I coach clients that if they eat according to the guidelines (not rules) I suggest, they’ll achieve remarkable results if done consistently at 75-85% of their meals. That leaves 15-25% of their meals to enjoy “Gammie’s Yammie Casserole”.
So, you know what you can’t do: eat 17,500 kcal. But what can you do?
In a study conducted by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, 29 men who were fed 40% more kcal than their baseline requirement for eight weeks, gained only 17 pounds (55% fat). You may be thinking, “Only!?” Yes, only.
These men were overfed an additional 1,200 kcal every day for eight weeks (think Thanksgiving for fifty-six straight days). That breaks down to a weight increase of only 0.3 pounds daily. You could easily get rid of that with a couple of days of proper dieting (selection of food, not restriction of it).
To this point it’s taken me 448 words, referencing a study, and “mathing” to say this: if you “blew it” at Thanksgiving, R-E-L-A-X. Heck, even if you “blow it” a few more times between now and New Year’s Day, you’re likely to gain only one pound.
Please don’t confuse my messaging as permission to stuff yourself as though Kevin Spacey was force feeding you canned spaghetti. Although you won’t gain as much fat as your scale has led you to believe, it’s also not a free-for-all to turn Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve into one long binge. (And it’s not so much of the calories you’d be consuming, but rather the behaviors you’d be reinforcing.)
With this in mind, here are five strategies that I find useful during the holidays.
Eat slowly and mindfully
You didn’t hear it here first, but it takes your stomach about 20 minutes to recognize fullness. How often have you plowed through a meal and, without warning, felt like you went from hungry to stuffed? Don’t bother counting. It’s a lot.
Data suggest that eating slowly may help you both be more satisfied after a meal and consume fewer calories within it.
Here are four practical tips to help you slow down:
- Count the number of times you chew. On the surface, this seems impractical, but there has been no other tip that has helped me more. Don’t become obsessive about it, though . . . nor do it aloud.
- Put your utensil down between bites. Instead of continuously shoving food into your mouth, put down your fork, chew your food, swallow, and then go for your next bite. And if food is falling from your mouth, you weren’t ready.
- Take a drink . . . or breath. Between bites, take a drink of water (or, preferably, another zero-calorie beverage), breath, or both.
- Enjoy conversation. Assuming you’ve any semblance of table manners, it’s very difficult to converse and chew.
Eat fewer, larger meals
This may be difficult to swallow, but it’s not the one or two big meals you eat [slowly and mindfully] on Thanksgiving or Christmas; it’s the mindless snacking you do between those meals. It’s the “harmless” bites of food you take throughout the day, the “one” cookie you grab the dozen times you pass the cookie tray, and the appetizers you use as both a “warm-up” and “cool down.”
So, don’t do that. Eat a couple of big meals (including dessert) until your heart’s content and your stomach [and brain] is satisfied, then stop.
Go for the “meat sweats” . . . and veggies
If you’re not familiar with meat sweats, it’s when you physically begin sweating from eating meat. At best it sounds anecdotal, at worst, gross. But you want this. Why? Meat sweats are the result of eating protein. More specifically, from the thermic effect of food or eating (TEF or TEE).
To digest, process, and synthesize protein (and carbs and fat), it requires energy. You actually burn calories to use and store calories.
Unlike carbs and fat, though, which use 3-10% of the calories you consume to process them, your body uses up to 30% of the calories from protein to process it. This use of energy raises your body temperature, which we know, can cause us to sweat.
Not only that, but protein also provides satiety, meaning you feel fuller longer.
Which is more filling, a turkey breast or pumpkin pie?
Four ounces of turkey breast, with the delicious skin, mind you, has less than two hundred calories. To eat the equivalent in calories (never mind the lack of nutrition) of pumpkin pie, you could have 1/12th of a nine-inch pie. Visually, that looks like a waste of time.
Protein truly is the superstar of your plate. But superstars are never without their entourage. And protein’s entourage? Veggies. Never mind the abundance of nutrition veggies provide, they help you feel fuller sooner due to their volume. So, be like Christian Slater’s character “Hard Harry” and “pump up the volume” [of veggies].
Earn your carbs
Notice I didn’t say reward yourself with carbs. Often times, after a workout, people will reward themselves with food. This line of thinking is hedonic. Because they’ve “punished” themselves with exercise, they then “pleasure,” or reward, themselves with food. And people who reward themselves with food are often the ones you see performing penance on the treadmill after the holidays (five Hail Mary’s and sixty minutes of intervals).
Knowing a holiday feast is upon me, I plan my training sessions accordingly. Specifically, strength training.
Assuming you’re showing some level of exertion when strength training, you’re doing two things (and scrolling on your phone’s not one of them). First, you’re causing itty-bitty micro tears to your muscles. Second, you’re depleting your muscles of fuel.
To help you repair those tears, your body needs protein. To replenish your muscles’ fuel, your body needs carbohydrates.
And there is no better time to do this than after exercise, when your body will shuttle these much-needed nutrients into your muscles rather than being stored as fat.
Would we rather eat a sweet potato rather than sweet potato pie (something I had for the last time Thanksgiving)? Sure. But if you’re gonna have pie, post exercise is the time to have it.
Consider budgeting your calories
This strategy isn’t too dissimilar to the second one.
With exception, I eat four meals daily. But on holidays, I’ll budget my calories and typically eat two. Please know, though, I’m not counting anything but the number of meals I eat.
Here’s the cool part, if I’m applying the earlier four strategies, I might consume a couple thousand calories more than I would on a normal day. And it doesn’t take long of my normal training and eating to get rid of those.
Again, these are five strategies that I employ to help me enjoy food during the holidays. I’m confident they can help you too.
If you’ve been training and eating for your goals the majority of the year, i.e., 75-85% of the time, there’s no reason one season should derail you.