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5 Ways to Prioritize Your Health and Nutrition This Thanksgiving

Manage stress, eat mindfully and get active.

Top-down view of a dining room table filled with food
A day centered on food can present a major challenge for those who are trying to eat healthy and reach certain health goals.
Fly View Productions/Getty Images

Thanksgiving can be a wonderful day filled with family, fellowship and, of course, delicious food. You might already be looking forward to seeing your extended family and loading a plate with some mashed potato and turkey goodness. But if you're not, and you're feeling anxious about the holiday, you're not alone. 

It's understandable that you may be nervous to travel or see your relatives, and it's understandable that you may be nervous about the actual meal, too. A day centered on food and booze can present a major challenge for those who are trying to reach certain health goals without subscribing to diet culture. This year, instead of feeling guilty or anxious, try these five strategies for a healthier, less-stressful Thanksgiving holiday.

1. Avoid the uncomfortable food coma

Ever wondered why you get so lethargic and tired after eating Thanksgiving dinner? There are actually a few reasons why -- and no, turkey isn't to blame. 

Tryptophan, a large amino acid that is known to cause sleepiness, is indeed found in turkey, but this link is more complicated than it seems. We already have high amounts of tryptophan in the bloodstream, which is converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for making you feel tired, in the brain. But the levels of tryptophan in turkey alone aren't enough to make you drowsy. Tryptophan's effect is multiplied when your insulin is higher. This means that foods with a high glycemic index such as starchy carbohydrates -- like potatoes, stuffing and sugary desserts -- are really the culprit. If you just eat turkey by itself, you shouldn't run into any issues. 

The digestion process itself can also be to blame. There's a known myth that blood is diverted from the brain to the gut after overeating, but this actually isn't true. Instead, our gut hormones are apt to secrete hormones like melatonin and orexin to intentionally make us sleepy after we eat a big meal. Our gut also plays a role in activating our vagus nerve, putting us in a state of "rest and digest" as opposed to the "flight or fight" mode. Your body does this to protect you during the digestion process -- it wants to calmly digest food instead of having it sit in your gut as you expend energy in an adrenaline-fueled state. 

There's nothing wrong with taking a post-dinner nap, but if you want to avoid lethargy, prioritize eating turkey, vegetables and carbs with a low glycemic index such as whole grains, sweet potatoes and brown rice. I'm not saying you have to forgo your usual pile of mashed potatoes and gravy, but for the sake of the food coma, you can always pace yourself during dinner and enjoy the leftovers later.

2. Go easy on the alcohol 

The holiday season is often a boozy time, and people drink much more than they usually do. In a 2018 study, Americans admit they drink 27% more during the holidays than the rest of the year. And the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Thursday is fittingly called "Blackout Wednesday" since many partake in heavy drinking before their day off from work. 

While drinking moderate amounts of alcohol is perfectly normal, especially with the sociable nature of the holidays, a little does go a long way and it's important to not fall into seasonal binge drinking. The CDC defines binge drinking as consuming four or more drinks during a single occasion for women, and five or more drinks during a single occasion for men. 

Alcohol has a strong sedative effect. If you have more than one or two drinks, it'll make you even drowsier after dinner and less active. Plus, alcohol can ruin your sleep quality throughout the night. While alcohol can help you relax and fall asleep, it disrupts your rest once you've fallen asleep, and you're prone to wake up throughout the night. 

To prevent lethargy, poor sleep quality or a painful hangover, moderate your alcohol intake. If you plan on enjoying a drink or two with your holiday meal, try to slip slowly and alternate servings of alcohol with at least one tall glass of water in between. It'll slow your pace down, and water is one of the best energy drinks there is. Plus, the extra hydration will help with your headache the next day if you do happen to overindulge.

red wine pouring into a wine glass

Try to slow your drinking pace down to a crawl.

Getty Images

3. Eat mindfully 

Thanksgiving dinner is a prime time for diet culture to rear its ugly head, making it hard to stay in tune with your own personal health goals without restricting or feeling guilty. Ideally, you can pace yourself and eat as much or as little as you want to, while also keeping in mind that the food isn't going anywhere and you can always eat more later. 

It's easier said than done, but there are effective strategies that can help. One strategy is to eat mindfully. Mindful eating can help you stay present while eating, so you feel all the sensations of the food and notice when you begin to feel full. By remaining aware during the process of eating, you can enjoy delicious food until you're satisfied without feeling overly full or uncomfortable afterward.

You can also try eating more slowly than you usually do or putting your fork down in between bites. If you tend to overload your plate with way more than you can actually eat, try getting smaller portions on your first pass through the buffet so that you can taste everything, then go back for more as you feel the need. On the flip side, if you tend to keep your portions smaller out of fear, allow yourself to go back for seconds and even thirds until you're truly satiated. 

4. Combat the stress 

Last year, 53.4 million people were predicted to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday. Between traffic, expensive plane tickets, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed and not having the comfort of your own home, celebrating holidays out of town can be stressful. 

And if road rage or long TSA lines weren't enough to make your anxiety spike, being around family members, especially ones that may be tied to unpleasant memories, is exhausting even for the best of us. All of this stress can pile up, and it can be hard to manage once in that situation. 

One tool that you can always pull out of your back pocket when faced with travel and family stress is the power of saying no. Put yourself first and don't be afraid to say no when you're at your limit. No, I can't attend three Thanksgiving parties in one evening. No, I can't drive two hours to pick up the in-laws from the airport. No, I don't want to share a room with my four cousins -- I'll stay at a hotel. 

Other tried and true tactics for managing stress and anxiety are spending time in nature, meditation, exercise and getting enough sleep. If you load up on all of those calming vibes before gathering with family, you can manage your stress well enough so that it doesn't take a huge toll on your mental health. 

Read also: Naturally Produce More Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphin and Oxytocin for a Happier Brain

city street jammed with traffic

Traveling during the holidays is stressful and exhausting.

Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images

5. Move your body 

You haven't seen your cousins in months and you want to catch up, the football game is on and it's cold outside. In the holiday season, there are a million reasons to deprioritize physical activity. But getting active for a few minutes each day is important for your mental and physical health. 

If you can, try getting active for 30 minutes before guests arrive, or suggest the family go for a walk around the neighborhood after dinner. Getting your heart rate up even for a few minutes has numerous benefits after you've had a rich Thanksgiving meal, including boosting your energy, aiding in digestion and balancing blood sugar levels. 

And if you really can't find the time to exercise, try doing a chore that gets you on your feet. Sweep the floors, put away the dishes, clear the table -- anything to get up and get moving

three women taking a walk through a neighborhood

A leisurely walk after a big meal helps with digestion.

Getty Images

Whatever you do, enjoy your Thanksgiving and don't be hard on yourself for indulging. It's totally OK for you to enjoy your favorite desserts and help yourself to seconds if you want. Remember that food is supposed to be enjoyed, and Thanksgiving is one day to be grateful for food and fellowship.

Don't feel guilty for letting go of any limitations related to your fitness or healthy eating. One day cannot -- and should not -- change how you feel about yourself. Eat for pleasure and enjoy your holiday as best you can. 

Caroline Roberts contributed to this story.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.