Part of what makes Thanksgiving so special is that many of the foods on the table are only enjoyed during this particular meal — and you get to have them all at the same time! But if you have health goals in mind, a heavy meal like the Thanksgiving feast can bring up conflicting feelings.
For example, if your doctor has told you that you need to cut back on saturated fat because your cholesterol is high, will digging into the macaroni and cheese and turkey actually impact your heart?
We asked a registered dietician, cardiologist, gastroenterologist and bariatric surgeon about the real health implications of eating to your heart’s content on Thanksgiving.
How Thanksgiving can impact your gut health.
Here’s a fun fact you probably shouldn’t share around the holiday table: The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest day for plumbers, according to Roto-Rooter, the largest provider of plumbing services in the country. Thanksgiving can really do a number on the digestive system (evidently mostly a number two).
“The foods we eat on Thanksgiving tend to be fried, fatty or processed. Then there’s the sheer amount of how much people eat. All of this can lead to bloating, constipation or diarrhoea,” said Dr. Andrew Boxer, a gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey. His pro tip on avoiding any of those post-meal woes is to eat slower, smaller portions, and not to skip out on dishes with fiber (like Brussels sprouts or cauliflower). But Boxer said that one of the main staples on the Thanksgiving table that actually impacts the gut the most is alcohol.
“Thanksgiving kicks off a whole season of overindulging in alcohol and from this time of the year until spring, more people are coming into the hospital with alcoholic liver disease, and people who are not alcoholics are showing up with acute alcoholic pancreatitis or alcoholic hepatitis, which can potentially be life threatening,” he said.
But as long as you keep your alcohol consumption at a moderate level, Boxer said the gut isn’t going to be impacted by how you eat during this one meal. Sure, you may be dealing with some unpleasant stomach issues in the short-term, but Boxer said your digestive system will get back on track in a couple of days, as long as you aren’t repeating the extent of your feast every day with leftovers.
How fatty Thanksgiving foods can affect your heart.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., a health condition that is largely preventable through diet and lifestyle habits. So if your doctor has told you to minimise foods high in saturated fat or sodium because you’re at-risk, it’s important to take their advice.
But can we all get a free pass for Thanksgiving and add as much salt and butter as we want to our mashed potatoes?
Here’s the good news: Dr. Sean P. Heffron, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health, said that it’s highly unlikely that one meal (even if it’s a very large meal consisting of mostly unhealthy foods) is going to negatively impact long-term heart health. There is one caveat. Heffron said that if someone has congestive heart failure, is highly sensitive to fluid balance (which eating a lot of salty foods can affect), has brittle diabetes (characterised by being hard to control), or has hypertriglyceridemia (a condition where there are high levels of fat in the blood), overeating foods high in saturated fat, sodium or sugar on Thanksgiving could be detrimental, leading to heart failure. And like Boxer, Heffron warned against drinking excessive amounts of alcohol on Thanksgiving, which can lead to abnormal heart rhythms.
That said, Heffron emphasised that for the vast majority of people, what you eat during Thanksgiving isn’t going to do any long-term damage to your heart. He added that it’s also worth it to take into account the positive health effects of enjoying a celebratory meal with friends. “The overall reason for the meal is being social and celebrating, which is beneficial for health,” he said. To his point, scientific studies have shown that social relationships reduce the risk of heart failure — one reason to be extra thankful for who you’re sharing your holiday meal with this year.
How Thanksgiving can impact your weight loss goals.
For anyone who is trying to lose weight in a healthy way, sitting down at the Thanksgiving table can be anxiety provoking. Registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole works with clients with a variety of health goals, including many who want to lose weight. Here’s what she said she tells everyone: Enjoy your meal. “Focus on the pleasure of the food, and the connection with your family and friends. One meal is not going to make or break your health goals unless you have a life-threatening condition,” she said.
Maybe you’ve been adhering to such strict eating rules for so long that you don’t even know what enjoying a meal without restriction looks like anymore. For these individuals, Tribole said to focus on what you want to eat and how eating the different foods are making your body feel. (This will likely mean eating a little slower.) “Diet culture has hijacked so many meaningful traditions,” she said. “Pay attention to how you feel and enjoy the pleasure of eating.”
Dr. Chelsea Wiltjer Yost, an internal medicine doctor specialising in bariatric surgery patient care and an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine, said that if someone who maintains a calorie deficit the majority of the time goes into Thanksgiving with no rules, it’s unlikely they will gain back the weight they lost. “One pound is a total of 3,500 calories, so to gain this you would have to intake that amount,” she said.
However, Yost did add that one day of irregularly eating can impact people with chronic health conditions. Echoing Heffron, she said that people with chronic diseases such as heart failure, high blood pressure or diabetes especially need to follow their doctor’s dietary recommendations, including during the holiday season.
But Dr. Ragui Sadek, a bariatric surgeon and clinical assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said that for the average person, one meal is likely not going to impact someone’s weight long-term. What’s more important, he said, is that it doesn’t lead to a behaviour change of eating unhealthy foods until Jan. 1 rolls around. “There are many people who gain 10 or 15 pounds during the holiday season and for someone who is already overweight, that can put them into a prediabetic state,” he said.
With that word of caution in place, here’s what Sadek wants everyone to keep in mind when it comes to Thanksgiving, whether they are trying to lose weight or not: It’s your habits that matter the most. He emphasised that what people do regularly has much more of an impact than a one-off meal, no matter how big of a feast it is.
Unless you have a life-threatening chronic health condition, you can sit down at the Thanksgiving table knowing that whatever you eat (and however much of it) is very likely not going to impact your body long-term. Rest assured that doctors and dieticians are sitting down at their own tables — and they aren’t passing up on pumpkin pie.