How to Have a Healthy Thanksgiving Without Feeling Deprived

Eat Better

How to Have a Healthy Thanksgiving Without Feeling Deprived

You’ve probably heard that the typical Thanksgiving dinner can be up to 3,000 calories or more. And that’s not even counting the nibbling leading up to the meal. Thanksgiving also often marks the beginning of nearly six weeks of throwing your health rules out the door.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can start the holiday season off right with a healthy Thanksgiving, and keep up your healthy habits straight through the New Year. It just takes a few tweaks here and there.

Here are five easy steps you can take.

1. Start your meal with some soup
Sure you want to dig right into the turkey. But opening with a soup course not only makes the meal more first class, it can reduce your total calorie intake by 20 percent according to a Penn State study.1 And research using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys found that compared to those who don’t eat soup, soup eaters weigh less, have smaller waistlines and eat fewer calories overall.2

Why? Soup is mostly liquid, so it fills you up without adding a lot of calories to the meal. It also takes awhile to eat, giving your brain a chance to catch up to your belly. But remember, for the calorie-saving benefit, your soup must be broth-based — tomato, chicken, veggie, etc. No cream of mushroom, cheddar broccoli or French onion allowed!

2. Fill your plate properly

The mashed potatoes, gravy, and marshmallow pudding look tempting. But if you fill your plate with only holiday heavies, you’ll wind up a lot grumpier at the end of the day. Balance things out with plenty of healthy fare as well. A better mealtime strategy: Serve up a spoonful or two of savory holiday flavors, then fill at least half your plate with veggies.

3. Stop eating before you’re full

This sounds so obvious, but most of us rely on external cues (how much food remains on our plate) rather than internal ones (how full we feel) to decide when to push the plate away. Using a smaller plate can help, but so can shifting your snacking into slow gear. Eating more slowly can actually change the production of a key gut hormone that helps the brain get the signal that it’s satisfied quicker.

To eat more slowly:

  • Put your fork down between bites.
  • Eat mindfully. Before you take a bite, take a deep breath in through your nose and notice the aroma of the turkey. Look at the color of the cranberry sauce and as you take a bite of the sweet potatoes, close your eyes and really relish the taste.
  • Take note of your hunger level – when you reach about a 6 or 7 out of a 10-point scale, put your hands in the air and step away from the table.
4. Plan some post-meal activity

After a calorie-laden turkey fest, the first thing you probably want to do is plop down on the coach to watch football (and by watch football we mean snooze for an hour). Better idea: Get up and move. It’ll help you feel better and burn off some of those calories you took in. An added bonus: It gives you more of a chance to connect with friends and family. Wash and dry the dishes (doing it by hand will burn more calories), then play a game of touch football or go for a walk together.

5. Ditch the guilt

Keep in mind, Thanksgiving comes around once a year. If you eat a little too much pumpkin pie, don’t beat yourself up. Take a deep breath, take a long walk, and know that tomorrow is another day!


1. Flood JE, Rolls BJ. Soup preloads in a variety of forms reduce meal energy intake. Appetite. 2007;49(3):626-34. PMID: 17574705.
2. Zhu Y, Hollis JH. Soup consumption is associated with a lower dietary energy density and a better diet quality in US adults. Br J Nutr. 2014;111(8):1474-80. PMID: 24382211.