The joys and dangers of holiday feasting

Food Matt Hellman | Lariat Photo Editor
Matt Hellman | Lariat Photo Editor

By Holly Renner

Dr. Suzy Weems – Professor and Chair in the department of Family and Consumer Sciences

How can people prepare for the dreaded weight gain over Thanksgiving?

You know, I think one of the things people really wanted to think about is that you don’t save up so you can gorge out on that one day, but that isn’t just another day with a healthy eating pattern and the issue is not eating everything you think you’re going to want all at once, but rather, eat a normal meal, maybe eat a small breakfast, then eat a normal meal. It’s OK to have leftovers and it’s OK to have those leftovers again for snacking at night if that’s the way your family does it. Or even saving those for the next day so it can be something you can enjoy all week, not just a “let’s see how much I can possibly eat” type of thing.

Do most people over-indulge on Thanksgiving?

I think sometimes what people choose to eat during the holiday season, which really runs from Thanksgiving through New Years, is that there are things available then that are not available the rest of the time, so they want to snack on those – they are in sight, they’re easy to grab. There may be some thoughts like, “It’s the holiday season, I can enjoy this.” But enjoying healthy foods and healthy snacks and really tasty foods shouldn’t be something you do just during that period of time – and so maybe we tend to give ourselves permission to do things during that month of just, “OK, we’ll just do it this way, and I’ll worry about it in January.” But it’s better to go ahead and eat normally and if you want to eat a little more, that’s fine, just go outside and walk a little bit more, or go get on the bike – do something that gives you a little more activity, and there shouldn’t necessarily be that weight gain.

What are the healthiest food options for Thanksgiving?

There’s pumpkin delights and dessert delights that don’t have to be quite as high in calories as some of the things we may traditionally eat. Instead of eating one-fourth of a pumpkin pie, maybe one-sixteenth of one would work as well and you can still enjoy the flavor that’s traditional, but take time to eat it – take time to enjoy it. The other thing that I find is that Thanksgiving and Christmas both, at least in a lot of cultures, is really heavy on casseroles. And many times, that’s a hidden way extra calories are introduced. Broccoli doesn’t have to have cheese and rice with it in order to taste good. Green beans don’t have to have tons of creamy kinds of sauces on them and lots of fried onions. Casserole itself is really quite good, but there’s some ways to cut the calories on that. You can use those lighter soups if that goes into the recipe. Choose things that have lighter levels of fat and lighter levels of salt. Sweet potatoes are an incredible dish, but I think that a lot of times, people look at them as a dessert because when you have the sweet potatoes with the brown sugar and the mushrooms and all of that – you’ve really made them not so much a calorie-limiting kind of food, but maybe, could be used in place of a dessert, and it’s much like the sweet potato pies that are out there. I know sweet potatoes are really good by themselves – they don’t have to have cinnamon, and they don’t have to have sugar to taste good – and that’s one of the things that sometimes I think people can adjust a little bit. Dressings – I think it all depends on who’s doing it and how much you choose to eat. I know one of the common things that was advertised years ago that really made sense was to cook some dressings in small muffin tins and that way, that’s a serving, and you don’t have to worry about getting super-served on the dressing levels. Think of covering it with cranberries. Fresh cranberry sauce is really tasty, but if you make it at home, you can make it with about half as much sugar as it says, and it’s still very good, and you can kind of bolster up the flavor with some cinnamon and some other kind of flavoring you might enjoy – make it more like a chutney.

What are the negative effects of tryptophan in turkey?

Tryptophan is just an amino acid. What it does in the body is it attempts to elicit a feeling of sedation and satisfaction, and so really, in a normal serving of 3 to 4 ounces of turkey at Thanksgiving, if everything else is in balance, you shouldn’t really feel anything that negative. Some people blame the turkey and blame the tryptophan for making them sleepy. There are a lot of things that make us sleepy. One thing I think about – the only negative with turkey – and I always try to think, “What could be a problem with turkey?” – about the only thing I see a problem with, is that people tend to eat too much, and so there’s that over-indulgence which comes back into play. Tryptophan by itself – it’s just one of those things that elicits serotonin responses, and that makes people sleepy or tired or feel content. So you have a really big meal, you go sit in front of the television to watch a football game, and it’s probably warm. Your body is probably content. There are a lot of carbohydrates in a meal, which is also likely to put you into a more relaxed and calming mood.

Do you think portioning is a big problem?

Portions are critical, I think. In fact, I keep looking at the plate concept, and looking at that and thinking, you know, if you fill half of it with those vegetables – and not all of those need to be in casseroles – they really just need to be vegetables. And then also, the other part of the plate, fill half of it with the lean protein – turkey is a really good source of that, unless of course you eat the fried skin on the fried turkey. But then the other part is where the starch normally goes, or the carbohydrate, and trying to figure out ways to keep that in balance. I kind of look at it as you have really small portions of a lot of different ones, like some dressings, some sweet potatoes, some corn casserole – whatever – or you can have a generous serving of one. So it’s like, fill the plate, and when it’s filled, go sit down and enjoy it, and that’s it.

What are fun ways to avoid weight gain over Thanksgiving while still eating the food we want?

You still eat the food that you want, but the fun things I think are activity, and that is to take a walk more than likely on Thanksgiving Day – it’s going to be beautiful in the majority of the United States. It’s a great time to go walking with a friend, to go walking with parents or to go have an outside adventure. Get yourself away from the kitchen. Get yourself away from the food, and go play football, or tag football, or yard football, or basketball, or tennis – something that you really enjoy doing, and just play instead of sitting in there, watching everybody else do it so much. When you write papers for the next week, you probably want to do it without food in place. Just enjoy Thanksgiving and enjoy the season and the spirit of it, and let food be a part of that joy, but not the total focus of everything that you do.