Thanksgiving: How to eat healthy on America’s food holiday

Simple strategies can keep you on track

close up of whole pumpkin pie

For people trying to lose or maintain weight loss, Thanksgiving can be frightening. The entire day is built around a single, often high-calorie meal.

According to the Calorie Control Council in 2011, a typical holiday meal could easily end up delivering 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat.

“Most people get tripped up when it comes to keeping weight off during the holidays due to more unhealthy, high calorie food being in their environments,” said ADC’s Weight Loss & Health Risk Management program. “There is an increase in holiday parties where more calorie-laden food and alcoholic beverages are served. Also, there can be an increase in stress and heightened emotions over the holidays, which can lead to emotional eating.”

We asked Health Risk Management to break down the calories of a typical Thanksgiving menu, including appetizers, and here’s what they found:

Typical Thanksgiving Menu


  • 2 mixed holiday drinks — 500 calories
  • 3 handfuls nuts — 800 calories
  • 5 celery stuffed w/ cream cheese — 225 calories
  • 10 crackers w/ cheese — 700 calories


  • 8 ounces white and dark turkey (2 servings) — 480 calories
  • 1 cup mashed potatoes w/ butter — 300 calories
  • 1 cup stuffing (2 servings) — 600 calories
  • 3-4 ladles gravy — 800 calories
  • ½ cup sautéed green beans — 50 calories
  • ¾ cup candied sweet potatoes — 300 calories
  • ½ cup cranberry sauce — 200 calories
  • 1 roll with butter — 180 calories
  • 1 piece pumpkin pie w/ whipped cream — 540 calories
  • 1 cup coffee w/ cream and sugar — 50 calories
  • 1 glass cider (or wine) — 150 calories

Total calories: 5,875

Thanksgiving turkey on table

Americans gain an average of 8-12 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day because of overeating during the holiday season. An estimated 50 percent of Americans begin diets in January.

But it is possible to break the cycle. The best way to combat the calories is with a good strategy. Often, even a few small changes can make a big impact when it comes to eating healthy over the holiday. It starts with how you prepare your Thanksgiving dishes.

“Many traditional dishes are made with fruits and vegetables which are naturally low in calories,” Health Risk Management said. “However, what makes the traditional Thanksgiving dish calorie laden is how they are prepared. Omitting butter, cream sauces and not frying food is a good start.”

Here are some tips to help you stay focused on your weight loss goal:

Healthy Holiday Tips

  1. Review cooking methods.
    By grilling or baking instead of frying your turkey, you can save on fat and calories without compromising taste.
  2. Replace foods with low- or no-fat versions.
    Choose poultry or fish instead of fatty red meats, and go with a healthy butter-substitute where ever you can.
  3. Watch out for liquid calories!
    Holiday drinks, including hot chocolate, specialty coffees, and alcoholic beverages contain more calories than most of us would expect.
  4. Be sure to get in your exercise!
    Exercise causes mood-elevating chemicals to be released, warding off those holiday blues, and it can help motivate you to watch your calorie intake- after an hour run, who wants to waste it on unhealthy eats?
    Health Risk Management says that a favorite Thanksgiving day activity is to go for a hike with family after dinner. Austin is often referred to as a ‘city within a park.’ There are lots of options all over town to get out in nature, enjoy the beauty of it while burning off some of those extra calories that you may have consumed.
  5. Balance your meals.
    Instead of covering your plate with solely high-calorie foods, have a plate that is ½ fruit and vegetable, ¼ carbohydrate, and ¼ protein.
  6. Control your environment.
    If cooking at home, be sure to serve well balanced, healthy, and low fat/low calorie meals. If going out to parties, offer to bring a healthy dish that won’t contribute to the typical holiday weight gain.
  7. Eat slowly!
    Pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table. Eating slowly and mindfully can help you not only recognize when you are full before you overeat, it can also help you focus on the company you are with instead of just the food.
  8. Use smaller dishes when serving yourself and your guests.
    Having a smaller area to place food leads to less consumption, which cuts down the calories.
    Health Risk Management recommends using a salad plate versus a dinner plate at Thanksgiving dinner. “People tend to fill up their plate and then proceed to eat what is on it. You can nearly cut the calories in half by making this one choice. Of course, this technique does not work if you proceed to go for a second or third helping.”
  9. Plan ahead!
    Whether you are going out to parties or hosting them yourself, having a plan and structure to your day will help keep your calorie intake in check. Try to plan out what you will eat and when, including snacks, caloric beverages, and meals.
  10. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
    During the holidays we are bound to indulge in foods that maybe were not in our plan, but the most important thing is to not let one piece of pie stop you from making further healthy choices.

Healthier Holiday Recipes

Video Recipe Demonstrations

Health Risk Management pulled together some Thanksgiving recipes and demonstrated how to make them.