Ok, so Thanksgiving doesn’t have the best reputation among holidays, health-wise. Often a day-long food fest that starts with chips and other greasy hors d’oeuvres as you sit and watch hours of football, then segues into a meal dominated by heavy, potato-and-stuffing oriented side dishes. And it’s capped off by cakes and pies of all kinds.
But setting aside the food issues for a moment, there are often social situations that are less than ideal for us as well. After all, dealing with delays at the airport or bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways doesn’t put you in the mood for celebrating. If you’re hosting, there’s the purchasing, setting up, cooking, cleaning, and general stress of having houseguests. Not to mention the thought of seeing Aunt Ida who asks rapid-fire questions about why you’re still not married or why your cousin’s children who can’t seem to sit still for more than five minutes at a time.
However, through it all, if you can step back for a moment and think about the concept of the holiday—giving thanks for all that we have—you’ll not only make it through the day a happier person, but you may even reap some health benefits. It can be easy to lose sight of what’s truly important and get hung up on minor annoyances and frustrations. But if you consider that those sometimes irritating family members are truly there for you at the best and worst of times, you’ll realize they make up a pretty amazing support network that you are lucky to have. In fact, a 2010 study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah found that strong social ties are very closely linked with long-term health.1
So, instead of waiting until New Year’s to make a resolution about how you will improve yourself, try resolving from this moment forward to focus on the blessings in your life rather than the negatives. As you shift your perspective to actively concentrate on positive aspects of your life, your feelings of gratitude will likely grow. After all, each of us has plenty of problems, but we also have an abundance of good things in our lives. Think about all the people you love who love you too; good health; a job with a steady paycheck; and a clean, safe place to live, among others. If you have them all, great! If you only have one or two, then focus on those. Accentuating the positive is not just a line from a song, it’s a prerequisite for good health. These feelings of gratitude can improve your outlook and bolster your health in a number of ways. A 2015 study at the University of California, San Diego showed that people who feel more gratitude had better mental health—with less depression and greater energy levels—as well as better physical health indicated by reduced systemic inflammation and more regular heart rhythms.2
And as for getting through the holiday season without gaining an extra 15 pounds, Thanksgiving doesn’t have to begin a downward spiral of unhealthy eating habits. Obviously, if you’re hosting, most of the meal is in your control. But even if you’re going elsewhere, you can contribute a dish or two so you’re sure there will be something healthy available.
The roast turkey itself isn’t a problem. A five-ounce portion of turkey breast provides you with 147 calories, 24 grams of protein, and about half the recommended daily allowance of folic acid. But you will have to avoid the skin, which tends to be very fatty. Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin A, but eat them plain if possible since a sweet potato casserole usually includes a lot of sugar and butter, upping calories quite a bit.
Stick with the vegetables if they’re served in a relatively natural state. Cranberries and string beans—both Thanksgiving favorites—are also very healthy if they are prepared without a lot of extra ingredients. String beans are high in beta-carotene and B vitamins, while cranberries are rich in antioxidants, potassium, and vitamin C. But keep in mind that the cranberry sauce that comes from a can is usually high in sugar. If the only options are buried under sauces, take just a small serving. You can always offer to bring a dish made with pumpkin, which offers alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, fiber, and more, and fill your plate with a hearty portion.
Finally, instead of indulging in a slab of pie after dinner, why not suggest going for a walk first? You may not get the whole crowd to join in, but maybe a few friends and relatives will be up for the outing. It will give your body a well deserved break from all the sitting and help you get in a little exercise for the day to burn off some of the excess calories you may have consumed.
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