General Medical

Medical Monday: A Survival Guide for Thanksgiving and Beyond

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If you are preparing for Thanksgiving, it’s probably a given that there will be stuffing at the table. I’m not referring to the bready side dish that spent time in a bird. I’m talking about filling our bellies almost beyond capacity, beginning in early afternoon and ending well after the sun has set. If you are like many Americans, by the close of Thanksgiving Day you are so full you can barely imagine relocating any farther than from the table to the couch. Thanksgiving marks the start of a holiday season that is loaded with gustatory temptations.  Still, with some thoughtful planning you might end up feeling better than ever by the time the New Year rings in.

Why is it so hard to stop yourself from eating when you know you are full and that you’ll regret it later? The obvious answer, of course, is that everything—from the sweet and tart cranberry sauce to the savory stuffing to the spicy pumpkin pie—tastes so good! But that’s not the only reason we overindulge. It turns out, paradoxically, that rather than leading to satiety, eating certain foods begets more eating.

If you were hungry and all you had to eat was unsweetened cranberry sauce, for example, you might eat it, but once you were satisfied, you would stop. What it is about that sweetener that keeps us lifting the spoon to our lips?

Part of the explanation is that eating sweet food raises our blood sugar (aka blood glucose) level. To bring it back to normal, our pancreas spews insulin into the bloodstream. Then, if it overshoots the mark—as often happens after a very sweet meal—the blood sugar could go too low (hypoglycemia), causing our body to signal us to eat again to bring our sugar level back to normal. This also happens with foods high in carbohydrates, like bread and crackers, since they turn into sugar quickly, especially if they are made from refined grains, like white flour. In addition, there is evidence that the addictive potential of sugar is real, since some of the biochemicals that are released after eating sugar are the same as those after using addictive drugs, such as cocaine or morphine.

If you want to try to make this Thanksgiving Day different, there are a few tricks that might help you eat less.

  • Use a larger plate, so that there is room for more of the high-fiber foods, such as salads and vegetables, that will fill you up without the calories, and make you therefore take less of the foods you want to limit.
  • Chew your food really well.
  • Stop talking or watching TV for a moment and pay attention to what you’re eating. Imagine you are a food reviewer and experience all that is wonderful about what is in your mouth: the flavor, spices, sweetness, texture.

If you ignored all these suggestions and ate to your heart’s content (or discontent, from your heart’s perspective), it won’t help to dwell on it or feel guilty. Instead, treat your heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and digestive tract with consideration on Friday. They are working overtime to process and eliminate all that fat, cholesterol, sugar, salt, and alcohol you consumed.

Lighten their burden by starting Friday off with a cleansing glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice and water to flush out your kidneys. If you are feeling really inspired, follow it with a green smoothie made from fruit and leafy greens, like kale and cilantro.

Get moving with a brisk walk, a yoga class, or a light workout at the gym. For lunch, have a salad with a non-creamy dressing, like lemon juice, olive oil, and salt, and a plant-based protein, such as beans, nuts, or seeds. At dinner have steamed or lightly stir-fried vegetables, including some from the cruciferous family, like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, known for their anti-cancer and liver-detoxifying benefits along with more plant-based proteins.

Give yourself a break from animal protein for the day. Study after study shows that these plant foods decrease your risk of heart disease and certain cancers. 

Are you thinking that this plan sounds good in theory, but you’re not sure you can make it happen? Start by shopping for these post-Thanksgiving foods at the same time you shop for your Thanksgiving fare so they are waiting for you in your refrigerator. The next step is key: Keep the healthier leftovers, like the salads, cooked vegetables, bean dishes, squashes, and turkey, and find a way to get rid of all the desserts, pumpkin breads, marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes, and stuffing. You can give these unhealthy foods away or simply throw them away. Discarding so-called “good” food (ie, food that hasn’t gone bad) seems like a waste, but the real waste is eating those leftovers post-holiday. And keeping them in your home will make them very hard to resist.

Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday, and there is no ignoring that food is a major part of it. But it is only the first food-related celebration of the season. With each one, use the techniques that limit overindulgence during the occasion. More importantly, treat your body well on the subsequent days. You don’t have to feel like a stuffed bird this Thanksgiving Day. But even if you do, you can still show your body that you are thankful for it, too, on Friday!



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