Allysa Seely cooks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Olympic and Paralympic athletes are among the fittest and healthiest people on the planet, and part of that stems from keeping a close on eye on their daily nutritional needs and eating habits.
When it comes indulging in the traditional Thanksgiving meal, however, it’s OK even for the most dedicated and serious of athletes to bend the rules.
In fact, Stephanie Miezin, a registered dietitian with the United States Olympic Committee who works out of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, even encourages it.
“It’s a holiday, so make sure you’re enjoying yourself,” she said. “You can have strategies (for not overindulging), but in the end if you’re not enjoying yourself because you’re stressing about nutrition, that’s just sad. Make sure to enjoy it and don’t stress too much.”
That said, there are a few things athletes and non-athletes alike can do to prevent feeling like they need to be rolled away from the dinner table before falling into a food coma on the sofa.
The biggest thing, Miezin said, is portion control.
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“If you take a small portion of everything you want, then you’re still able to enjoy the meal and feel like you’re having the full Thanksgiving experience without totally throwing nutrition out the window,” she said. “I advise taking smaller portions than you think you’d like, and eating mindfully, savoring every bite, eating slowly and enjoying talking to your family and friends. Then you can decide if you really want some more or if you’re good.”
If you’re hosting or contributing a dish, she said, consider a nice fruit plate either for an appetizer or dessert, or putting together a healthy salad for a starter. Roasted vegetables are always a good and tasty option for a side dish with nutritional benefits, she said, particularly since vegetables in the classic Thanksgiving meal are often served in casserole form or with cream and other less-than-healthy ingredients. Including brussels sprouts, carrots or other vegetables can help create a more balanced plate.
Brussels sprouts prepared at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Another option is to consider substituting some ingredients with healthier alternatives. For instance, Miezin said, instead of throwing a stick of butter in the mashed potatoes, try heating garlic and rosemary in olive oil and adding that to the potatoes for a healthier yet still flavorful taste.
For dessert, fruit is always a good choice, particularly paired with chocolate- or peanut butter-flavored Greek yogurt to use as a dipping sauce while providing some protein. Apple sauce can be used as a substitute for oil or butter, and swapping whole wheat flour for white flour can help.
“Those are definitely things you can try, as long as the end result is still enjoyable,” she said. “If you feel like you’re depriving yourself because you made it healthy, you’re missing the point of having dessert.”
Even with dessert, she said, it all goes back to portion size and enjoying what’s offered without overdoing it.
One thing Miezin does not recommend is skipping breakfast in order to save room and load all your calories into one meal.
“That’s not the best idea because what will probably happen is you are starving by the time for that meal and then you overeat because you’re so hungry,” she said. “I think it’s a really good idea to have a balanced and satisfying breakfast. It doesn’t have to be really big or little, just what will normally hold you over until that meal and lead you into the meal with a normal amount of hunger. If you’re super hungry you’re going to eat more than you want to.”
Of course, elite athletes still need to be mindful of their bodies’ needs for fueling and recovery, particularly if they have training sessions on Thursday or Friday. Although they shouldn’t stress over straying from their usual diet for the holiday, Miezin said, they still need to get the nutrients they need to perform at a high level.
Average folks could also benefit from a little movement pre- or post-Thanksgiving meal, whether that’s running or walking in a local turkey trot or going for a walk with the family around the neighborhood.
“Especially after you eat and feel so sleepy, if it’s warm enough to get outside that’s a great opportunity to get moving and not feel so tired,” she said.
Click here to download a USOC Sports Nutrition recipe for Caramelized Brussels Sprouts + Grapes.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.