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Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

Your Guide to a Healthier Thanksgiving

A health guide to Thanksgiving does not have to be synonymous with tips to reduce your calorie intake at the main meal. Here are ways to support a mind body connection, from recognizing hunger cues to mindful meditation.

Editor’s note: This article was updated from an earlier version posted in November 2021.

A health guide to Thanksgiving does not have to be synonymous with tips to reduce your calorie intake at the main meal. You can eat cheesecake in whichever way you prefer—whether that is traditional style with cherries on top, a no-bake vegan recipe or a keto version with almond-flour crust.

Instead, this guide focuses on ways to support a healthy mind and body connection, from jump starting your day with a Turkey Trot, to ways to safely carrying that bird from the oven to the table, to a quick and easy meditation you can drop into if you happen to find yourself hiding out from anxiety-inducing conversations with family or friends.

Whether you look forward to this holiday or dread it, it’s just one day out of the year. Read on for tips to making it a guilt-free and gratitude-focused experience.

Start the Day Active
After a lifelong aversion to exercising, despite recommending it to all his patients since 1978, cardiologist Dr. Howard Weitz decided to set a goal to run a half marathon back in 2016. Not only was he successful in both those endeavors, but he also has been pounding pavement ever since.

“Exercise is critically important for heart health,” says Dr. Weitz. “It can decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke, it can help you lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.”

Consider setting a goal of getting in the best shape possible to be able to run in your local Thanksgiving Turkey Trot next year and invite your family and friends to join you in achieving this goal.

Gratitude Practice + Mindfulness Meditation
“Gratitude is an excellent way to begin your day joyfully and mindfully,” says Dr. Diane Reibel, co-founder of the Stress Reduction Program at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health. Research shows that practicing gratitude reduces stress and enhances well-being. Here is a gratitude practice. Take a comfortable seat or lie down and bring to mind someone you are really grateful to have in your life. Notice what arises in your body, mind and heart. “In your own imagination, see yourself thanking them for being in your life through some gesture of gratefulness, like a smile, a hug or simply saying thank you,” Dr. Reibel says. “Savor the feeling of gratitude that arises. If it feels right, you may want to thank this person the next time you see them and thank others you are grateful. Notice the mind and body state that arises when you offer gratitude.”

Woman taking a relaxing walk under fall foliage
[Photo credit: d3sign/Moment]

If stress arises throughout the day, whether you start feeling the pressure of preparing dinner or anxieties around spending time with family, Dr. Reibel also offers a two-minute meditation that can be done anywhere and anytime.

“If you start to notice anxiety rising, we use this acronym PRO, as in being in the moment like a PRO,” explains Dr. Reibel.

  • Pause – Bring attention to your body. Notice areas that might be holding stress or tension. Notice your thoughts—are they stressful? Pause and simply become aware.
  • Relax – Invite ease into the body. Try lowering your shoulders, soften your belly, take a breath in through the nose and out through the mouth with a sigh. This is the calming breath. Relaxing the body can bring more ease to the mind.
  • Open – Be open to the moment, your surroundings, the person in front of you and to yourself with as much kindness as possible. Open yourself to the real essence of the holiday.

Dr. Reibel says that practicing PRO helps you to step out of habitual reactive/stressful patterns and into more healthful ways of responding.

Listen to Your Body’s Hunger Cues
Clinical dietitian Emily Rubin says that Americans make an average of 200 food decisions each day, and probably even more around the holidays with all the tempting holiday goodies. “We are bombarded with food everywhere, from work to home to all the holiday parties as well as social media,” she explains.

The best way to stay healthy during the holiday season is not to restrict yourself or limit what you put on your plate but rather practice listening to your hunger cues.

Rubin believes one of the worst things you can do on Thanksgiving is to not eat before the main meal, in an effort to save your calories. “You will probably eat two to three times the amount of calories at that meal than if you ate balanced meals throughout the day,” she says.

The best way to make sure you do not overeat to the point you are physically uncomfortable is to tune in to your body’s hunger cues. “Listening to your body’s hunger cues may sound easy but it can be very difficult,” Rubin explains. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘Why am I eating this? Am I truly hungry?’”

Stay Safe in the Kitchen
During food prep, it is important to remember to bend your fingers into the palm of your hand when holding food for slicing, dicing and chopping, says hand surgeon Dr. Stephanie Sweet. “Never, ever put your hand into kitchen appliances to clear blockages, even if they are powered down,” she adds. “Garbage disposals, blenders and food processors lead to many severe and avoidable injuries, including lacerations and even amputations.”

It is also important to stay aware of your body and support your back, especially when taking heavy items like turkeys or casseroles out of the oven. When placing and removing the turkey out of the oven, make sure to bend at your hips into a squat. You want to let your legs do the work and not your back. Another tip is to carry heavy serving trays to the table close to your body to reduce the pressure on your back.

[Main photo credit: kynesher/E+]

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