7 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving Without a Setback

For the most part, fall is a great time to focus on weight loss and fitness. The crisp weather is perfect for outdoor walks, runs and hikes. Shorter days mean more time indoors to spend prepping healthy meals. And the autumn harvest brings a cornucopia of fresh produce for said meals. It's arguably the best season to get on the fast track to your goals. And then comes Thanksgiving.

If you're struggling to lose or maintain weight, the holiday might not exactly inspire the gratitude for which it’s intended. To the contrary, it can seem like one giant temptation, threatening to derail months of discipline and hard work. You already know there's nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, and you've learned to practice moderation in regular daily life. But an entire day (or heck, an entire weekend) filled with mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, savory stuffing—not to mention the pies...so many pies—can be enough to shrivel even the strongest resolve.

But it doesn't have to be that way. By entering the holiday with the right mindset, you can enjoy Thanksgiving without letting it gobble up all your goals.

Remember, it's just another day.

It's easy to get caught up in the mentality that Thanksgiving is some almighty, willpower-crushing day, and that you're powerless to resist its never-ending temptations. And while it's true that the holiday is indeed centered around food's journey from oven to plate to mouth, Liza Baker with Simply! Health Coaching reminds her clients that they are just as capable of sticking to their goals on Turkey Day as on any other, ordinary day.

"Like any other day, you will be faced with choices at every turn: to eat breakfast or not, to work out or not, to cook from scratch or cook using processed foods, to eat or order out and to drink or not to drink," she says. Ultimately, no matter how many pies Aunt Doris bakes or how many cocktails Uncle Steve mixes, you have the final say about what—and how much—you consume.

Create a new walking tradition.

After the plates have been cleared, invite family or friends to go for a post-dinner walk. Not only will you burn off some of the calories you just consumed, you'll also get a chance to enjoy the refreshing fall air, clear your mind and spend some quality time with loved ones. Plus, on Thanksgiving, any time spent outside the proximity of food is a victory in itself.

For a 150-pound person, a 45-minute walk will burn approximately 160 calories, which is roughly equivalent to a serving of skinless turkey breast. You can boost that calorie burn by adding some speed, incorporating hills or walking a little further.

Don't try to be perfect.

While Thanksgiving shouldn't be regarded as a "hall pass" to stuff yourself past the point of fullness with diet-dooming foods, you also shouldn't enter into the day with super-strict rules or plans to deprive yourself of anything bordering on unhealthy.

As a health coach, Baker's goal is to get her clients to make better choices 80 to 90 percent of the time, with the remaining 10 to 20 percent leaving some wiggle room for foods that feel somewhat indulgent. Allowing this leeway helps keep them from feeling as though they're denied any pleasure.

"Interestingly enough, the more we make better choices and the better we feel, the less we are inclined to crave the indulgences, whether it's a particular food, an extra glass of wine or a day off from exercising," she notes.

The takeaway? Go ahead and enjoy that (one) slice of apple pie or that (sensibly portioned) helping of stuffing. Eat slowly and savor each bite. You'll end the meal feeling satisfied, not deprived, and will be less likely to overeat later.

Practice mindful eating.

There's no getting around the fact that Thanksgiving presents an abundance of food and beverage choices. The key is not to avoid them entirely, Baker says, but to make every choice mindfully. "Pause to ask yourself whether you really want every item on the buffet rather than feeling obliged to pile it all on, and then enjoy everything you chose without judging yourself for 'caving,'" she suggests.

Another tenet of mindful eating is to eliminate distractions, which may seem darn near impossible in a hyper-social environment like Thanksgiving. Enjoy interacting with your loved ones, but also try to pay attention to the tastes and textures of the food. Eat slowly so you can register the moment when you become full, instead of mindlessly eating until your plate is empty.

Read on for more ways to eat mindfully.

Look for lighter versions of favorite recipes.

While we wouldn't dream of suggesting that you skip the mashed potatoes or corn pudding altogether, there are most likely healthier versions of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes that can satisfy your cravings without overstuffing your calorie count.

Registered dietitian Summer Yule has been using the healthier pumpkin pie recipe on the SparkPeople website for years, and recommends it to her clients who are looking for a lighter holiday dessert. "It is much lower in calories, refined flour and fat than traditional pumpkin pie," she points out. "And as an added benefit, it has vitamin A and fiber from the pumpkin, as well as protein from the egg whites and milk powder."

Yule also points out that fruit-based desserts, such as apple or cherry pie, tend to contain fewer calories than chocolate desserts. Some lighter options you might want to consider include this Southern Strawberry Pretzel Light DessertLightened-Up Apple CrispNo-Bake Graham Cracker CheesecakeApplesauce Carrot Cake or Cranberry-Almond Oatmeal Cookies.

Substitute healthier ingredients when possible.

Simple swaps can make a big difference in the calories, sugar and fat content of typical Thanksgiving recipes.
  • Use whole wheat flour instead of enriched white flour in your baked goods to save calories and receive more nutrients than white flour alone. If you don’t want to replace all of your flour, use half whole wheat and half enriched flours.
  • Replace sugar with a sugar substitute like Splenda in your pies and other baked goods.
  • Cook with skim milk instead of whole or 2 percent milk. Your potatoes will be just as creamy, and you’ll save up to 70 calories per serving.
  • Replace eggs in cooking and baking with an egg substitute like Egg Beaters brand. You’ll save 45 calories and 185 mg of cholesterol per egg. Or, just replace half of the eggs with an egg substitute.
  • Instead of using store-bought or a traditional homemade chip dip, try using half the amount of regular mayonnaise, sour cream or other full-fat ingredient and replace the other half with reduced-fat sour cream, blended low-fat cottage cheese or olive oil mayonnaise.

Handle slip-ups wisely.

So what happens if, despite the best of intentions, you deviate from the plan and end up overindulging? Baker cautions against falling into the trap of: "Well, I just blew it—I'll get back on the wagon in the new year." Instead of regarding Thanksgiving as the entry point into a two-month holiday binge, focus on enjoying the day's meals—even if they weren't quite as healthy as you planned—and go back to making better choices the very next day.

Baker also suggests journaling about your slip-up—not just tracking the calories, fat and sugar, but also writing about how you felt before, during and after the day, and also before, during and after the meal.

"You may discover that you're overeating because you're stressed about your extended family being around, you're not working out because it would involve seeming ungracious to houseguests to get up and leave for an hour, you're having more wine because your mother-in-law drives you crazy, and so on," she says.

Along the way, you might gain valuable insights about your relationship with food, drinks and exercise that can inform your choices on a day-to-day basis, Baker notes. For example, you may not pick up on how relationships with people affect your food choices in "regular" life, but when every element (food, drink, company) is heightened, you may stumble upon a few valuable "aha" moments.

Starting a healthy new lifestyle is challenging enough in your regular routine, but the true test is when you throw a food-focused holiday into the mix. By concentrating on your goals, making thoughtful choices, leaving room for controlled indulgences and practicing mindful eating, it is possible to end the day feeling thankful—and not just full.