Why Thanksgiving is the Perfect Time to Adopt a Mediterranean Diet & Other Healthy Holiday Tips

Assistant Instructional Professor Cary Kreutzer
Assistant Instructional Professor Cary Kreutzer

The Thanksgiving meal is often used to illustrate how Americans get it wrong with food – we eat too much of everything, leaving us feeling like overstuffed turkeys. Registered dietitian Dr. Cary Kreutzer, director of the Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan, and Longevity program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, says it does not need to be that way. In fact, America’s food-focused holiday is the ideal time to start some healthy traditions inspired by the Mediterranean lifestyle, also known as the Mediterranean diet.

“Thanksgiving is not just about sitting down to a meal,” said Kreutzer. “It is a day to enjoy preparing traditional foods, savoring flavors and spending time with family and friends. This social aspect is a known benefit of the Mediterranean lifestyle and something to be mindful of as we continue and create our own holiday traditions.”  Speaking of tranditions, Kreutzer adds that pilgrims’ original main dish was actually fish, not turkey.

Kreutzer’s Thanksgiving Tips  

Make it a Dunch

It’s not dinner. It’s not lunch. Kreutzer calls it dunch, and says the ideal time to eat the main course is between 2:00 – 4:00 pm. “An early start gives you a chance to go outside and enjoy activities with the family or go for a walk before dark and to take a break before dessert,” she says. “Leftovers are the best part, so saving enough food for the next few days allows you to enjoy the meal multiple times.”

Embrace Tradition

“Food is social. Food is emotional,” says Kreutzer. “Thanksgiving is no time to skip your family favorites.” Instead, Kreutzer recommends taking smaller portions of the good stuff and avoiding the non-essential items, like buttered bread rolls, to make room for more special foods that she says can be prepared more healthfully with no loss to taste. Read on for some examples.

Toss the Saturated Fat

Don’t skip the gravy, skim it. Kreutzer advises adding some ice cubes to the turkey juices before preparing gravy. Skimming the fat that floats to the top before adding thickener will remove the saturated fat and extra calories – and keep the flavor. Also, extra virgin olive oil can be added to a dark green leafy salad with chopped walnuts, key ingredients in the Mediterranean diet.

Keep Foods Whole

Whole, fresh foods have only one ingredient, the fruit or vegetable.  Processed foods have many added ingredients to keep them on the store shelves longer.  By using whole foods and adding little or no additional ingredients  – be it sugar or butter – the more you benefit in terms of fiber and nutrients. Also, keep in mind that overcooking destroys beneficial vitamins and minerals. So, keep it simple, and keep the skin.   “From cranberries to potatoes, whole foods provide whole nutrition so don’t toss the nutrients ,” said Kreutzer.

Color your Plate

Don’t let your centerpiece steal the show. Your plate should include an array of colors too. “Most of us eat far more turkey and ham than we need,” says Kreutzer. “Two to four ounces of meat protein is enough for most people, which leaves room for a variety of vegetables.” Speaking of plates, Kreutzer also recommends using a smaller size to keep portions in check.  Our eyes deceive us and we are inclined to fill our plate to the edges.

Slow down

Fast eaters often end up eating more, and are the first to go back for a second plate, says Kreutzer. Putting forks down and sipping water, tea, coffee, milk or a glass of red wine (don’t forget drinks can add lots of hidden sugar and calories to meals) can prolong the time between bites. Enjoy the company and engage in conversation while savoring the smell and flavors of the meal.

Preserve the Cultural and Family Rituals

Some people, particularly older adults, may not be able to travel on Thanksgiving or may not be able to consume solid foods. Kreutzer stresses the importance of taking steps to trigger the positive associations of the holiday no matter your age and abilities. For example, she says even the smell of a dish can be enough to trigger a memory and increase one’s appetite.