How To Maximize Thanksgiving for Muscle NOT Fat

November 20, 2020 - 9 min read (worth it!)

Did you know that turkey meat, which contains the amino acid L-tryptophan, is really NOT the main culprit for the iconic post meal nap or drowsiness associated with Thanksgiving? It’s actually a combination of overeating, high carbohydrate (carb) intake (mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pie, & cake), alcohol consumption, stress, and hours of meal preparation.

The purpose of this article is to give several simple but impactful strategies to promote a “healthy” muscle building Thanksgiving by not contributing to fat gain, insulin resistance, or gastrointestinal (GI) upset. This is a must read for anyone partaking in an active, performance, or weight lifting lifestyle. In this article, I’ll explain what is “healthy”, how to change some of your food choices in addition to techniques to change the preparation of your traditional foods. I will provide at least 5 food preparation approaches and 5 behavioral lifestyle changes that will allow you to enjoy Thanksgiving without it contributing to the yearly holiday fat gain and poor gut health.            

What is Healthy Eating for Muscle, and Why Does it Matter?

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The term “healthy” means different things to different people. The Keto dieters (low carb, high fat) proclaim carbs are bad and to blame for our obesity epidemic, Dr. Dean Ornish (low fat, high carb) states fats are unhealthy allowing only 10% fat calories per day, and vegans don’t consume any animal protein, products, or by-products. Regardless of your macronutrient preference (Carbs, Protein, Fats, Alcohol, & Ketones) or choice of plant versus animal products, the best way to characterize or define healthy eating includes an evaluation of nutrients vs. calories. Does the food contain more empty sugar and saturated fat calories than nutrients, in other words, is the food calorically dense and void of nutrients or is the food nutrient dense and lower in calories?

Macronutrients and amounts should be personalized to your lifestyle, physique goals, and exercise. However, there are some universal health guidelines everyone could follow such as whole grain complex carbs over simple refined carbs and sugars, lean high quality proteins over processed high saturated fat proteins, healthy fats (mono and poly unsaturated fats over saturated fats), and alcohol in moderation (if consumed – 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men). Lean Protein intake should be increased from the RDA of .8 grams per kg / body weight to ~2.2 grams per kg / body weight or 1 gram per lb. of body weight for muscle gain when combined with a resistance training / weight lifting routine. I eat a carbohydrate controlled high protein Mediterranean diet, which includes vegetables, herbs, nuts, beans, and moderate amounts of dairy, poultry, seafood, and eggs with fruits and red meat eaten occasionally. It’s important to wrap our heads around the broad term “healthy”. Eating healthy contributes to lean muscle gain when combined with high protein and resistance training. An understanding of these concepts will help you make better food choices on Thanksgiving.  

How to Eat at Thanksgiving for Muscle and NOT Fat Gain Caloric State

The first place to start includes understanding your current caloric state or intake (hypocaloric, maintenance calories, or hypercaloric). There are different Thanksgiving strategies if you are restricting calories (hypocaloric) for some event to lose body fat versus eating maintenance calories or extra calories (hypercaloric) for weight gain. In addition, this will also tell us if your weight has fluctuated (decreased, stable, or increased) over the last few weeks.   

Food Prep

Let’s start with the turkey. If possible I would look for a free-range organic (non-GMO) vegetarian fed turkey not frozen and not treated with antibiotics. However, if this doesn’t fit your lifestyle or budget then a traditional frozen turkey will do just fine as well. Let’s stay away from any type of deep-frying and go with traditional baking or roasting in a lightly olive oil coated oven-roasting pan.

If you plan on using any gravy then try making low-fat gravy. Boil 4 to 5 cups of fat-free chicken broth with 2 cloves of garlic, sage, and thyme then gradually add skim milk and cornstarch to thicken and let simmer.

Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes from scratch by boiling red potatoes or sweet potatoes are ideal, however, other forms are acceptable such as commercially premade and refrigerated. The main preparation points include using skim milk for the mashed potatoes and omitting the sugar but adding the cinnamon and nutmeg to the sweet potatoes with a small amount of butter or olive oil margarine when adding to the freshly boiled potatoes during mashing.

Whether you make your stuffing from scratch or from a box use fat-free chicken broth and water instead of turkey drippings, oil, or butter.
Green bean casserole is a classic Thanksgiving green vegetable but try using 98% fat-free cream of mushroom soup instead of regular cream of mushroom soup and go easy on the fried onion crisps.

I don’t like being the bearer of bad news but traditional cranberry sauce is mainly sugar and high fructose corn syrup so if needed use it very sparingly. However, you can try making your own with orange juice, zest, cranberries, honey, and agave but this still has a good amount of sugar so go easy.   

Pre-Thanksgiving Consumption

This section really only pertains to those who are in the maintenance and hypercaloric state as previously mentioned. Those in the hypocaloric state (low-calorie or lower than normal caloric intake that promotes fat loss) can skip these carbohydrate recommendations since your body is already in a somewhat deprived state (low glycogen stores in muscle) promoting water and fat loss. Try limiting carbohydrates to 100-150 grams per day for 3 to 7 days before Thanksgiving. This will help deplete your glycogen stores thereby allowing your body to use your Thanksgiving consumption more efficiently for muscle-building and not fat gain. 

Exercise Routine

It’s important to keep consistent with your training routine especially during the weeks before Thanksgiving. Hopefully, your workout routine includes both aerobic and anaerobic exercises. A nice balance of 3 to 5 days of aerobic cardio for 30-60 min per session (treadmill, stationary bike, or stair stepper) and 3 to 5 days of anaerobic resistance weight training for 60-90 minutes per session (dumbbells, free weight, machines, and/or resistance bands) should give enough stimulus for both muscle-building and fat and glycogen burning. In addition, getting a good workout done prior to the Thanksgiving feast will help further deplete your glycogen stores and prime your body to efficiently handle the incoming carbohydrates and calories.

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Dietary Supplements

There are some dietary supplements that can help regulate blood sugar by supporting insulin sensitivity and glycogen storage. These supplements can be used on a regular basis but are especially helpful for those high carb and calorie meals. I have grouped these examples into minor scientific evidence and good scientific evidence. You can use one or all three of these supplements but start gradually with one at a time, use as tolerated, and as always speak with your healthcare provider prior to starting any dietary supplement, diet, or exercise program.
Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before eating and curcumin containing 180 mg to 200 mg of curcuminoids taken before a fatty meal both have some minor scientific health evidence. Berberine HCl 500 mg three times per day prior to each meal (B, L, &, D) has good scientific health evidence or the more recent dihydroberberine at 100 mg to 200 mg before each meal (B, L, &, D).

Thanksgiving Consumption

There are many ways to approach the actual Thanksgiving meal, which depend upon how many of the previously mentioned tips you decided to follow. However, regardless of how closely you followed the previous tips don’t deprive yourself of anything and choose reasonable sized portions of what you want to eat especially those carbs rich foods but with an emphasis on the lean white meat and green veggies. Go easy on seconds (if at all) and alcohol especially if you plan on having dessert. Stay hydrated by drinking your normal water intake (64-128 oz. per day) and pick only one serving of one dessert.  

Post-Thanksgiving

Okay, the main feast is over and you’ve had some time to digest and call or video chat your out-of-town relatives. This is a great time to go on a walk depending upon your location and weather to further help digestion and calorie use.

Tips and Reminders for Healthy Muscle Building Thanksgiving

  • The term “healthy” includes nutrient dense foods and not calorically dense foods high in sugar and saturated fat
  • Lean Protein intake should be ~2.2 grams per kg / body weight or 1 gram per lb. of body weight for muscle gain when combined with resistance training 
  • Understand your caloric state (low / hypocaloric, maintenance intake, or high / hypercaloric) and body weight history  
  • Food Prep – cut the saturated fat with fat-free or low-fat ingredients or options
  • Pre-Thanksgiving Consumption – limit carbohydrate consumption (100 grams-150 grams per day) for 3 to 7 days before Thanksgiving 
  • Exercise Routine – stay consistent with your training (3-5 days of both aerobic [treadmill] and anaerobic exercises [resistance training or weight lifting])
  • Dietary Supplementation - 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, curcumin containing 180 mg to 200 mg of curcuminoids, and 500 mg of berberine HCl
  • Thanksgiving Consumption – emphasize lean white turkey meat and green veggies while choosing reasonable sized portions of everything else (1 serving of pie and alcohol in moderation)
  • Post Thanksgiving – go for a relaxing walk

The key takeaway from this article includes gaining a general understanding of how your body handles a large meal in response to food prep, healthy muscle-building eating, caloric state, and exercise. We want to prime our body for Thanksgiving by making some dietary adjustments the week before the big meal and slightly change how we eat during the meal. This was described earlier as decreasing energy reserves or carbohydrate stores before Thanksgiving, continuing regular exercise and dietary supplementation, while making reasonable sized food choices. Following these guidelines will allow you to enjoy a healthy muscle-building Thanksgiving without the typical holiday fat gain and thus not derail all of your hard-earned efforts in the gym. 

  • Johnston CS, Kim CM, Buller AJ. Vinegar improves insulin sensitivity to a high-carbohydrate meal in subjects with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2004 Jan;27(1):281-2. doi: 10.2337/diacare.27.1.281. PMID: 14694010.
  • Chuengsamarn S, Rattanamongkolgul S, Luechapudiporn R, Phisalaphong C, Jirawatnotai S. Curcumin extract for prevention of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2012 Nov;35(11):2121-7. doi: 10.2337/dc12-0116. Epub 2012 Jul 6. PMID: 22773702; PMCID: PMC3476912.
  • Pérez-Rubio KG, González-Ortiz M, Martínez-Abundis E, Robles-Cervantes JA, Espinel-Bermúdez MC. Effect of berberine administration on metabolic syndrome, insulin sensitivity, and insulin secretion. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2013 Oct;11(5):366-9. doi: 10.1089/met.2012.0183. Epub 2013 Jun 28. PMID: 23808999.

For Educational and Informational Purposes Only
The information provided in or through this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Use of the health-related information contained on this article does not constitute a doctor-patient or clinician-client relationship. Information contained here is intended as a self-help tool for your own use. The views on this article do not necessarily reflect the values, thoughts or opinions of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or other professional health organizations. You agree that there are no guarantees as to the specific outcome or results you can expect from using the information you receive on or through this article.

Not Health Advice
While I am a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist, the information contained in this article is not intended to be a substitute for individualized medical advice from a medical provider. Although care has been taken in preparing the information provided to you, I cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions, and I accept no liability whatsoever for any loss or damage you may incur. Always seek medical advice to your specific circumstances as needed for any and all questions and concerns you now have or may have in the future. You understand that this article is not customized for any individual and is presented without any type of health assessment or knowledge of any individual health conditions. You understand that the information in this article should not be used to diagnose a health problem or disease or to determine any health-related treatment program, including weight loss, diet, or exercise. You understand that any mention of any suggestion or recommendation on or through this article is to be taken at your own risk, with no liability on my part, recognizing that there is a rare chance that illness, injury or even death could result, and you agree to assume all risks.

About the Author

Sal Abraham, PhD MS RDN LDN

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