Thanksgiving, of all the holidays, wins the award for biggest culinary mindfuck. It’s equal parts gluttony and shame. Coma-inducing tryptophan concoctions of butter, carbs and gravy symbolize togetherness, but it’s doled out alongside a finger-wagging reproach for overeating. We’ve been hearing the same warning for years: Watch the mashed potatoes, or you’re gonna pack on five to 10 pounds during the last month of the year.
But let me assure you that the idea of the Great Holiday Fattening is overblown. A myth. A key study found that on average, the holiday weight gain is only about a pound. Folks who are already overweight tend to gain more — closer to five pounds — and then don’t do anything about it after the holidays.
That one average pound, added in a short four weeks, is still not nothing, particularly if you do intend to do something about it and try to return to your pre-indulgence active state. But if you want to participate in the annual eating contest called Thanksgiving, this single pound is the price of admission.
And it’s 100 percent worth it.
We always try to have Thanksgiving both ways, which is nutso. We want to mainline gravy directly into our veins, but we want to look like we haven’t eaten more than a lettuce wedge all week.
That’s missing the point. Thanksgiving is a holiday literally built on eating a lot — feasting on the bounty because, hello, the crops came in good this time and you didn’t die of smallpox (yet). We might not be eating the same stuff our ancestors did, but one thing we can get really authentic about is shoveling food down the old gullet in the spirit of having a pulse. And then letting that pulse dip dangerously as we slide into a pure, blissful bloatfest.
So why are we always trying to outwit it, when maybe there’s nothing to outwit? Google Thanksgiving headlines, and you’ll find, mostly, all the ways you can avoid overeating. Let me save you the trouble of reading these exciting, expert tips: They all involve ingesting something that is Not Thanksgiving Food so you don’t need to eat as much Thanksgiving Food, or tricking yourself into Not Eating Thanksgiving Food with magic, like by turning your hands into tiny hands so you can’t hold a lot of Thanksgiving Food (okay, I made that up).
And it’s not just medical experts and nutritionists who are in on this don’t-eat-too-much-food-on-Thanksgiving trend. Celebrities, the nutritionists for regular people, post reminders “not to overeat,” like this gem from Sarah Michelle Gellar:
Sorry, Buffy, but fat-shaming isn’t a good look. It’s not productive. It just makes overeaters feel bad for being human. If there’s one rule to follow, it’s this: Thanksgiving Is Eating Time. The whole point of the day is to eat more than you normally would, to fall in and out of a light coma while moaning, surfacing only enough to gently nudge more of Grandma’s pecan pie down with the acid reflux bubbling up. If you don’t have a piece of pie in your mouth and another piece of pie in your back pocket, you’re doing America wrong. Sure, you could do it all healthy and shit, but why would you want to? Everyone knows mashed potatoes without at least two sticks of butter and some heavy cream are as about as enjoyable as wet cardboard.
And that brings us to the Turkey Trot.
Lots of people try to sway fate in their favor by doing something called a Thanksgiving Workout. When my editor first mentioned it to me, I pictured people doing some kind of intense bird moves to work off all those sausage balls.
Unfortunately, no one’s got the energy for that on Thursday evening. The Thanksgiving workout is just a normal exercise routine some people do on the morning of Thanksgiving, pre-meal. It could be your regular workout, or an extra-tough HIIT class, or a seasonally themed one, like the appallingly named Turkey Burn N’ Firm Ride. That’s a 75-minute workout that involves abdomens and spinning; fitness manager Justin Flexen at Crunch tells Mic that “it gives them a chance to get that burn in before Thanksgiving dinner.”
So, people get in a workout before all the gorging because they believe, like in the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” sense, that it will somehow build a wall of caloric immunity. But it doesn’t. The justifications for doing the workout are totally valid: People who complete it feel proud they did it on Thanksgiving; working out extra hard makes your body need the calories more, so “you can make that meal work for you”; and it helps you stay on track with working out.
But the reality is, as dietician Alexandra Miller tells Mic, you can’t work out for an hour to somehow nullify a lot of pie. “It takes an hour on the elliptical to burn 365 calories, but only five minutes to eat a piece of pumpkin pie with the same, if not more, calories,” Miller said. “While a morning workout can help you burn off a few extra calories, it will not ‘cancel out’ your Thanksgiving feast.” You might even eat more because you think you stored up a deficit the size of a Cadillac.
Also, consider that the discomfort and seeming weight gain from all that stuffing might actually just be bloating, which is often what people experience from overeating. The bloat can actually tip the scales. If it’s just gas, you’re a walking fart, yes, but you won’t appear to have gained weight by the numbers. If it’s water retention and constipation — which are common when you eat a ton of salty, sugary, fatty foods — it can absolutely look like putting on a couple pounds. But that goes away if you just drink a lot of water and return to your previous diet.
This is all profoundly good news: You probably won’t gain significant weight over the holidays. If you were only working out Thanksgiving morning to cancel out pumpkin pie, don’t bother. And if you don’t do anything but simply indulge for a day or two and then stop, you’ll probably be perfectly fine.
Maybe just super gassy. But that, too, is surely what the Pilgrims and Native Americans wanted.