With Thanksgiving dinner around the corner, it’s that time of year that people worry about their food intake.
But does feasting during your holiday meal make a big difference for your body? According to experts, not really.
“It really isn’t that big of a deal over the long term for most people. Research suggests that it’s the behaviors you sustain over time – so think weeks, months, years – that are going to have big impacts on your life and your health as opposed to focusing in on just one day or even one meal within a day,” says Dr. Rachelle Reed, senior director of health science and research for Orangetheory Fitness.
This is because an isolated event, like a big holiday meal, isn’t likely to disrupt our body’s composition, which does a good job at maintaining itself, explains Evan Matthews, associate professor of exercise science and physical education at Montclair State University.
“We don’t gain fat quickly, and we don’t lose fat quickly… The things that are going to most impact your body composition are going to be lifestyle,” he says. “If you only over consume here or there at special events, it’s unlikely that it’s going to make dramatic impacts on your weight.”
In addition to worries around food, people also feel the pressure to work out over the holidays in order to “burn off” or “make room” for their turkey.
But Reed explains the idea of restricting calories or a transactional view of working out to “earn calories” or “earn the right to indulge” at a meal can lead to a harmful outlook.
“We want to think about habits over the long term. And when you do have that restrictive mindset, research suggests that it’s going to be harder for you to sustain the healthy behaviors that we know most people are striving for, like eating a nutrient-dense diet and being physically active. So I think that sort of ‘permission to eat’ can be a slippery slope,” she adds.
One end of the slippery slope could be disordered eating.
While going all out during a holiday meal might be enjoyable for some, not everyone has the same relationship with food. For people who struggle with eating disorders, even the word “overindulging” can be triggering since it puts a “moral value on the amount of food that’s being consumed,” explains Chelsea M. Kronengold, communications lead at the National Eating Disorders Association.
“Just the thought of food-focus holidays can be overwhelming and cause anxiety for people that are struggling with eating disorders,” she says. “Unfortunately, diet culture is rampant during Thanksgiving and other food-focused holidays.”
Someone who struggles with anorexia or restrictive disordered eating may be more inclined to “shut down” during the meal, Kronengold explains, while someone with bulimia or a binge eating disorder may feel inclined to skip a meal in order to “save all the calories” for Thanksgiving, but that could make things worse.
“Then you get to this Thanksgiving meal, and you’re extra hungry and therefore you’re more likely to binge due to the fact that you haven’t been eating throughout the day and sticking to a meal plan if you have one.”
Kronengold thinks we should also break down the stigma surrounding weight gain in general, especially in our holiday conversations.
“We always talk about like, ‘don’t worry, you’re not going to gain weight.’ And that’s not necessarily helpful language either. That perpetuates fatphobia and weight stigma,” she explains. “Everyone eats differently and consumes different amount of foods, so what may be considered overindulging to one person is not to another person. And so it’s really important to mind your own plate.”
Instead of putting so much focus on food during the holidays, Kronengold suggests shifting it elsewhere.
“There is more to the holiday than food. Whether it’s spending time with your loved ones, watching or playing football or the Thanksgiving Day Parade… (or) putting that energy towards practicing gratitude can be helpful,” she says.
Matthews says you can also skip your Thanksgiving day workout. Instead, he suggests opting for year-long routine for your health.
“You’re better off starting starting low and progressing slow with exercise because it’s that long-term adherence that really matters,” he says.
Reed agrees it’s best to stay away from guilt-fueled fitness focused on calories.
“When people focus just on that transactional nature of the workout, they oftentimes are losing sight of those bigger life changing benefits that we know to be true from research (such as) lower rates for almost every type of chronic disease, improved mental health, better sleep (and) lower risk for certain types of cancers.”
She also says it’s important to have a flexible mindset, adding while it’s great if you want to keep up your typical workouts during a holiday, “in the grand scheme of things, it’s one day,”
And movement can happen outside the gym too.
“Playing cornhole with family in the backyard, or going for an extra walk with your dog or even just running around the house cleaning and prepping for company, all of that movement counts,” she says, pointing to the health benefits of staying active. “It’s going to help you feel more energetic, maybe deal with any stress of the holidays, help you maintain your sleep schedule. It’s also going to be easier for you to do all of the fun things that come along with the holiday season.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with food and body image concerns this Thanksgiving, know that you’re not alone. The NEDA Helpline is available via click-to-chat on Thanksgiving Day from 12 pm – 8 pm ET. For 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741-741.