Thanksgiving Calories, Without the Guilt

Just Have a Plan for Getting Your Diet Back on Track, Experts Say

Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC on November 26, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 26, 2008 -- No matter how earnestly you resolve not to overindulge this Thanksgiving, you will probably eat more than you should.

After all, a typical Thanksgiving meal can add up to 3,000 calories or more. And if you snack throughout the day or eat two big meals, you could easily double that for the day.

One of the biggest culprits? Pecan pie. A single slice with whipped cream has about 800 calories -- more than a meal's worth of calories in a single dessert.

You won't find much that's low calorie elsewhere, either, unless your feast happens to have a raw veggie plate. Here's how some other Thanksgiving favorites stack up:

  • Roasted dark and white meat turkey with skin -- 450 calories
  • Homemade stuffing with gravy -- 600 calories
  • Cranberry relish -- 200 calories
  • Candied sweet potatoes -- 400 calories
  • Green bean casserole -- 190 calories
  • Pumpkin pie with whipped cream -- 400 calories
  • Cup of eggnog -- 400 calories

Who even wants to think about how long it would take to work all that off!

So what's a dieter to do?

WebMD contacted three well-known experts to get their take on Thanksgiving feasting. Their advice: Enjoy the day, and get back on track Friday.

"It's not the easiest time to eat sensibly and I don't advise trying very hard," says NYU professor of nutrition Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, who wrote the 2006 book What to Eat.

"My approach is to pick and choose," she tells WebMD. "I taste everything, keep the servings really small, and save room for seconds of the foods I really like. But if family dynamics mean that the cook will never forgive you if you don't eat the food, it's best to eat the food, enjoy every bite, and deal with dieting later in the week."

Physician John La Puma, MD, says even totally out-of-control days won't lead to significant weight gain if you have only few of them a year.

An accomplished cook who has adopted the pseudonym 'ChefMD,' La Puma is the author of the book ChefMD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine.

La Puma recommends choosing four days a year as "feast days" when you can eat and drink anything you want in any quantity you want.

"I think the idea of feasting that Thanksgiving represents is kind of lost in American society because we tend to feast all year long," he tells WebMD.

"The problem isn't Thanksgiving, it is the fact that many people don't stop eating between Thanksgiving and the New Year," he says.

Pete Thomas was once one of those people.

"Before I lost weight I viewed Thanksgiving as a day to gorge myself and eat everything in sight," Thomas tells WebMD. "That turned into a month of gorging between Thanksgiving and Christmas."

In November 2005, Thomas walked away from the finale of NBC's Biggest Loser $100,000 richer after losing 185 pounds in nine months.

Now a motivational speaker, Thomas specializes in helping extremely obese people lose weight.

Thomas' strategy for staying in control during the holidays involves planning.
"If you plan to get some exercise the morning of Thanksgiving and the morning after, that will go a long way to keeping you on track," he says. "And develop a plan for holiday eating so you don't eat everything in sight."

Some of Thomas' other tips include:

  • Enjoy the foods you really love in reasonable portions, but skip the foods you don't.
  • Plan activities to compliment the day that everyone can do together. "Make it about more than just the food," he says.
  • If you are the cook or are contributing to the holiday meal, make a dish that you like that meets your nutritional needs.
  • Clear the table and put the food away immediately after the big meal and send food home with guests.
  • Have reasonable expectations.

"You probably won't lose weight during the holidays, but with careful planning you can avoid gaining weight," he says.

Show Sources


Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition, New York University.

John La Puma, MD, medical director, Santa Barbara Institute for Medical Nutrition and Healthy Weight, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Pete Thomas, motivational speaker, Ypsilanti, Mich.

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