Thanksgiving is nearly here, which means it’s time for family, gratitude, awkward conversations about politics, and eating. A lot of eating. For my family, it’s mashed potatoes and stuffing (like my mother-in-law’s incredible dressing that takes three — yes, three! — days to make). For yours, it might be pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, or any other of the day’s staples.
Since many of us spend the day overindulging, I wanted to know: Is there a way to actually be healthy on Thanksgiving? So I turned to Mark Hyman, MD, author of the new cookbook Food: What the Heck Should I Cook? and the go-to healthy eating expert of my Wake-Up Call newsletter. He offered up some helpful tips we can all follow during our holiday meal.
Katie Couric: Can you start by telling us some of the health risks of overeating during the holidays?
Dr. Mark Hyman: Eating well is not about perfection. The point is to honor your body and know what works best for you and, just as important, what doesn’t work. I know when I overeat a bunch of food that doesn’t make me feel good, I might spend the next few days feeling puffy, bloated, and tired. This often happens when we overindulge in the big three: dairy, gluten, and sugar.
All three of these can create an inflammatory response in the body. It doesn’t show up the same way for everyone. The symptoms may be bloating, stuffiness, constipation, joint pain, fatigue, headaches, depression, and more. However, I don’t expect anyone to avoid these foods forever. Know what works for you. Pay attention to how you feel. What makes you full of energy or feel tired, sluggish, or worse. Try to learn to love food that loves you back.
Let’s get right to it: Which traditional Thanksgiving dishes are potentially healthy, and which are arguably not so healthy?
If you host your own Thanksgiving or can contribute to the menu, there are ways to make even traditional Thanksgiving meals healthy. If you’re heading to someone’s Thanksgiving, make sure you include plenty of veggies. Soups and salads are great options. Go for the turkey, green beans, and Brussels sprouts.
If you know you don’t feel well when you eat gluten, dairy, or sugar, I would recommend avoiding pies and stuffing or making healthy substitutes from whole ingredients like the desserts in my cookbook Food: What the Heck Should I Cook?
This doesn’t mean I never eat dessert. I do my best 90% of the time; I also enjoy a nice slice of pumpkin pie with my loved ones. You can even make it with a nut-based gluten-free crust, coconut cream, and even coconut whipped cream.
Break it down for us: How should we approach Thanksgiving dinner? What about those of us who don’t have any say over what’s being served and are at the mercy of a host’s menu?
Remember your goals. Think about the way you want to feel before you hit those holiday parties and dinners. If you want to feel great, you’re less likely to indulge in foods and activities that make you feel less than great. Set an intention for how you would like to feel after each meal, and hold yourself accountable by sharing those goals with a close friend or family member. And, of course, there are days in the year when we get to celebrate and indulge! It’s okay. Just tune in to your body; think of your goals and your future self and how you want to feel.
Another tip is to become the host. If you can, host your own party and take the opportunity to introduce your guests to a healthier and tastier Thanksgiving. Making healthy food choices becomes easier when you have your own gathering.
Okay, but how should we game-plan our Thanksgiving meals?
Here are a few tips:
Don’t deviate from the norm. If you know you’re going to attend a lavish party, begin your day as you would any other. Don’t skip meals to save calories or carbohydrates. Eat a snack packed with protein and healthy fats, like celery sticks with nut butter or a protein shake, an hour before your holiday meal. Protein and fat help cut cravings for sugar and processed carbs. Then you won’t be starving and overeat at the party.
Make smart food choices. Beginning with soup, fresh veggies, or a salad and avoiding appetizers filled with refined flour and other unhealthy choices can prevent cravings. Look for the vegetable board or other healthy options as snacks or appetizers. Volunteering to bring something to every gathering you attend guarantees there’s a healthy choice.
Avoid or limit alcohol. Alcohol reduces your inhibitions and can lead you down a slippery slope of making bad choices. Most types of alcohol are also filled with sugar and empty calories. If you’re going to enjoy some drinks, try not to drink late into the night, as this can disrupt your sleep. And drink with — not before — meals. It won’t mess up your blood sugar as much.
Plan an activity to look forward to after the meal. It could be a group walk, visiting with friends or family, a group game, or playing with younger family members. This is a great way to stay active after eating a heavy meal.
Practice mindfulness. Take five deep breaths before your meal, and chew every bite slowly. Really focus on the flavors, colors, and smells of your food. Try to put your fork down between bites, and breathe through your nose while you eat. Express gratitude with others before your meal. Being present with your food is a great way to tune into what your body needs, and it’s great for digestion.
This is a big one: Respond politely to food pushers. Occasionally, you might have a food pusher, friend, or relative ask you why you’re not indulging at a party. When this happens to me, I reply I’m here for the people, not the food. No one argues or feels insulted.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up. If you do happen to overeat or eat something you know might make you feel crummy, leave guilt behind. Guilt is a toxic emotion that creates more damage. When things get out of control (which they do), simply make a gentle U-turn. Think of this as a GPS for the soul. Your GPS doesn’t yell at you, call you stupid, or judge you for taking a wrong turn. In the sweetest voice imaginable, the GPS reminds you to take the next possible U-turn. If you indulge a little, that’s fine. How did you react to the food that you ate? Pay attention and move on by making a U-turn and getting back to the foods and activities that make you feel great.
We’ve all seen a lot about how to get our diet back on track after a day of overindulgence. What’s the best approach?
I like to do a reset every now and then, especially after travel or big holidays. It’s a great way to realign with your goals and nourish your body with nutrient-dense food. Sometimes this reset is simply reflecting on what makes you feel good and moving back to that. Other times, I’ll boost my health by taking supportive supplements like milk thistle, especially after having alcohol, or glutathione, the mother of antioxidants. Just focus on eating real, whole food. Make 75% of your plate (by volume) plant foods, and add a palm-size of protein and a good dose of healthy fats. Take your multivitamin, drink plenty of water, and prioritize relaxation and stress management.
This originally appeared on Medium.com