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UA nutrition professor recommends Thanksgiving meal tips

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Satya Murthy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Thanksgiving could be aptly described as a glorified binge fest. Year after year, we eat ourselves into exhaustion and indigestion on this holiday that seems to turn a meal into so much more than just sustenance.

“We need to eat to survive, but food is a whole lot more than that. Food brings people together,” said Veronica Mullins, assistant professor of practice in nutritional sciences at the UA. “Sharing a meal with family and friends is a special moment that should be cherished. Family traditions and cultural practices are an important part of society.”

Thanksgiving is certainly a fun and important holiday and it shouldn’t have to end in the bloated discomfort we often find ourselves suffering from.

Overeating can have lasting effects even beyond the holiday season. It often triggers a hormonal response that can disrupt signals from the brain that tell you when you’re full. Some studies show that it could take more than 30 minutes for your brain to tell you that your stomach is full. “Portion control is key here,” Mullins said. “Start with a small salad to help fill you up and eat a lighter dinner with smaller portions. Remember there are always leftovers.”

In fact, there are many ways to lighten up your meal without corrupting the essence of the Thanksgiving tradition.

“Choose white meat turkey instead of dark to decrease your fat intake. Pick one or even two starchy dishes: stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or cornbread instead of eating them all. Better yet, have half of a baked sweet potato,” Mullins said. “Try roasted or steamed veggies instead of a veggie casserole dish with lots of added fats. Make cranberry sauce from whole cranberries rather than a can to decrease calories and sugar content.”

RELATED: Health Corner: BMI measurements ain’t that great in determining metabolic health

Falling asleep after turkey dinner is a common phenomenon, but does turkey itself actually have sleep-inducing properties? “Turkey is a good food source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is to blame for the sleepy myth. Tryptophan is needed by the body make serotonin, the relaxation hormone, and melatonin, a hormone that controls sleep,” Mullins said. “Although turkey contains tryptophan, it actually has less than chicken. If you feel sleepy after your Thanksgiving meal, it is most likely due to the large quantity of food and alcohol consumed.”

For many, choosing what to eat is a decision based solely on the numbers. Because Thanksgiving is most often an assembly of homemade dishes from several kitchens, one does not have nutritional data easily at hand. For a Thanksgiving meal consisting of three ounces of turkey, one cup of stuffing, one cup of green bean casserole, six ounces of mashed potatoes and gravy, one cup of cranberry sauce, four ounces of cornbread, five ounces of sweet potatoes and marshmallows, one glass of wine, a slice each of pecan pie and pumpkin pie, one can expect to consume an exorbitant 3,157 calories, 124 grams of fat and 388 grams of carbs.

Of an entire Thanksgiving smorgasbord, one slice of pecan pie is the worst culprit, comprising 503 calories, 27 grams of fat and 64 grams of carbs by itself.

RELATED: Keeping it local: UA Students for Sustainability and UA ceramics class connects students with local foods

Other than substitution and portion control, exercise can be a great way to combat the bloated lethargy of Thanksgiving. “You have to run a mile to burn about 100 calories; that’s a lot of running. Your best bet is to go for a walk with your family and friends, enjoy the company and eat a little less for the next few days,” Mullins said.

If a run isn’t your speed, a family gathering on Thanksgiving is a great way to enjoy some friendly competition—perhaps with a game of football, as is so typically related to the holiday. If the idea of a long run does sound appealing, it’s not too late to sign up for a turkey trot. These festive races are held all over the nation and usually, have a family run/walk around one or two miles and a more competitive race anywhere from a 5k to a full marathon.

It is important to treat Thanksgiving as what it is: a wonderful occasion where loved ones can share a meal and be thankful for what they have. At the end of the day, the important part is to pay attention to health and nutrition throughout the year, rather than giving yourself a guilt trip on the holiday. “Thanksgiving is only one meal; it’s what you do day in and day out that counts,” Mullins said.


Follow Chandler Donald on Twitter.


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