Thanksgiving is this week so many people will be spending time with family and friends relaxing, watching football and shopping.
Eating a meal that includes foods that are traditional favorites, some of which aren’t the healthiest options.
Most advice on making Thanksgiving dinner healthier focuses on eating less and modifying recipes. But is that realistic? Probably not, since Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy a meal with family and friends, not worry about calories.
A feast like Thanksgiving dinner isn’t a problem, especially if you eat a healthy diet other days.
But a meal that includes a lot of fatty foods and sweets could pose problems for people who have or who are at risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
The good news is that a few simple steps can make your Thanksgiving feast healthier, no matter what you eat. This literally means steps, because physical activity can reduce the effect a big meal can have on your health.
A big meal, especially one that is high in fat, can lead to high levels of blood lipids, including triglycerides. This is called postprandial lipemia, which has been linked to the development of heart disease and may even increase the risk of having a heart attack.
It turns out that exercise can blunt the effect of a meal on blood lipids. Even moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial and the effect can last for several hours. So, go for a walk before your Thanksgiving dinner.
Exercise is also beneficial after the meal ends, too. After eating, blood glucose is high, which could be challenging for people who have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes.
Big changes in blood glucose make maintaining a consistent level difficult. Exercise after eating can help lower blood glucose since the active muscles use the glucose as a fuel. That’s why going for a walk after dinner is a good idea.
There is a more practical reason why doing something active after dinner is smart. It gets you up and away from the table and the food!
Research, and common sense, tells us that if you are around food there is a good chance you will eat it, even if you don’t intend to. Getting out of the house to go for a walk can help keep you from eating too much.
There is another time you should try to get some activity on Thanksgiving Day – during halftime of the football game!
Spending too much time sitting is almost as unhealthy as not exercising.
Breaking up prolonged sitting at the dinner table or in front of the television is important for reducing this negative effect.
Even standing for a few minutes activates muscles and improves circulation.
Something else to keep in mind is that the average American adult gains about one pound between Thanksgiving and the new year.
While this is less than the five or more pounds people commonly believed they gain during the holidays, this extra weight is typically not lost during the spring or summer.
This weight gain could be prevented with as little as 20 to 30 minutes of walking or other moderate-intensity activity each day.
Considering that most people don’t do this regularly, a couple of short walks on Thanksgiving Day could be the start of a healthy habit that helps you keep the holiday weight off.
So, enjoy your favorite foods, dessert, and leftovers on Thanksgiving Day. But plan to go for a walk or do something active through the day to make this Thanksgiving a healthier time for your family.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.
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