Perhaps it's fitting that our dysfunctional notions about food and feasting are ratcheted up a notch during the holiday season.
Alongside sumptuous recipe features are stories about how to host a "healthy Thanksgiving" or a "thinner Thanksgiving." HuffPost has even published tips in the past on how to avoid Thanksgiving weight gain or resist foods on the table. But this year, we're here to say, jeez, people, live a little!
Preparing customary Turkey Day foods (or your zany takes on them) is a fun and accessible way to pass on family traditions, and the whole thing is supposed to fill you with warm fuzzies about what you're grateful for and celebrating. And you can't do any of that if you're fretting about calorie counts, portion control and macronutrient proportions.
Not only are you torturing yourself, you're also setting yourself up for weight gain pitfalls down the road, according to personal trainer and nutrition expert Harley Pasternak, whose more recognizable clients include Seth Rogen, Meghan Fox, Halle Berry, Rihanna, Kanye West and Alicia Keys, to name a few.
But Pasternak's simple, common sense approach to nutrition is also immensely appealing to us mere mortals here at HuffPost. He's a down-to-earth dude who celebrates TWO Thanksgivings a year (originally from Canada, he indulges in culinary traditions like Tim Horton’s coffee and putting maple syrup on everything).
We may not be preparing our bodies for an action film franchise, but we all have lives to live and people to be happy and healthy for. That means eating well, moving regularly and getting rest, but it also means celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays — with food. A lot of good food. Here are five tips from Pasternak to make sure this Thanksgiving meal is the most guilt-free yet. And here’s to trainers who get it!
1. It’s one out of about 1,095 meals you’re going to have this year.
People who struggle with weight issues may hesitate to embrace Thanksgiving because of its huge emphasis on traditional foods and, well, gorging. But over-indulging in one meal can’t undo the months (or years) you’ve spent eating well and exercising, said Pasternak.
"Life is all about balance, and there are certain times of the year -- birthday, anniversary, holidays -- that are meant to be enjoyed without guilt,” the trainer told HuffPost. “That being said, Thanksgiving is a meal -- it’s not a Thanksgiving day, and it’s not a Thanksgiving week."
Practically, this means treating Turkey Thursday like any other day. Wake up, eat your normal breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, and even mid-afternoon snack, depending on what time the main event starts. Eating at normal intervals keeps your blood sugar level, and it ensures you eat normal-sized (or only slightly larger than normal-sized) portions of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie.
2. Don’t try to cancel out the effects of a big meal with more exercise.
To make up for those extra Thanksgiving calories, Turkey trots and two-a-day Turkey Burn spin sessions are a growing trend. But in fact, trying to exercise harder to “make up” for an excessive meal could actually backfire, as vigorous exercise leaves you feeling weak and hungry, said Pasternak.
You cannot out-exercise a bad diet.
"You cannot out-exercise a bad diet,” he said. "And not only that, you’re going to end up increasing your appetite.”
Research shows that exercise makes you hungry, either by raising hormone levels that increase hunger pangs or because people who put themselves through something physical subconsciously want to “treat” themselves for the effort.
So just stick to your normal exercise routine on Thursday, or, if you want to get a little touch football going with the family, eat some healthy snacks afterward to cut down on bingeing at the main event. Engage in exercise for fun, not because you're trying to outrun the turkey you ate.
3. Saving your appetite for Thanksgiving dinner is a recipe for disaster.
Instead of stocking up on exercise, some folks may think that saving all of their calories for the main event will help cushion the blow of all that rich holiday food. But the truth is, starving yourself to make caloric space for second servings of pumpkin pie will only prep you for a night of overeating and blood sugar havoc -- what Pasternak calls “setting yourself up for a very bad situation."
It only takes about a few hours of fasting for your body to start feeling the first signs of starvation. In that state, you’re hangry, your hands may tremble and because your blood sugar level is low, you begin to feel tired. And when you’re finally presented with that food, you’re more likely to go a little crazy. Researchers from Cornell University have found that people who were just fasting tend to choose more starchy foods to break their fast and eat more than they normally would if they weren’t just starving. Consider yourself warned.
4. Thanksgiving season also happens to coincide with the best weather for outdoor activity.
After the meal is over, it’s tempting to just lay back and slip into a food coma, or watch football for the rest of the long weekend. But that would mean missing out on what’s pretty much the best weather we can ask for when it comes to outdoor activity. You’re home, not at work (hopefully), which means there’s more time for leisurely walks after meals or even a little yard work.
"It’s probably the best time of the year to be active outside,” said Pasternak. "Don’t just sit there for hours a day watching other people exercise.” And by exercise, Pasternak simply means movement -- not fancy gym memberships or fitness moves that need equipment.
For research for his 2010 book The Five Factor World Diet, Pasternak observed a few key things that separate the U.S. (one of the most unhealthy nations in the developed world) from lean nations like Japan, France and Israel. One observation was that people in those countries walk a lot more than the average American does, and that this activity means that exercise is a constant part of everyone’s whole day. Pasternak is a huge fan of the “movement."
"They’re not going to the gym, they’re not going to SoulCycle,” he said. "They’re just walking a lot, and that’s what makes them healthier and live longer."
5. “Cleansing" is pretty much the worst thing you can do after a big holiday season.
After it’s all over, you might look at any extra pounds on the scale and be tempted to embark on a so-called “cleanse,” in which otherwise rational and sane adult humans replace all their meals with various fruit and vegetable juices of questionable nutritional quality.
There is no such thing as a healthy cleanse.
But in fact, stripping vegetables and fruits of their fiber while concentrating their sugars into easily-quaffable juice form will actually make you gain weight in the long run. It spikes your blood sugar (because you’re drinking sugar from 10 carrots as opposed to munching on just one), which causes your body to release more of the hormone insulin. Over time, this repeated pattern could lead to insulin resistance, which paves the way for Type 2 diabetes.
Sure, you might lose some water weight if you stick with it, but once you return to your old eating habits, all that weight will come back -- and then some.
"There is no such thing as a healthy cleanse,” he concluded. "It’s the worst thing you can do for your body."
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