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How to indulge in Thanksgiving comfort food in a healthy way

Overeating this holiday season may be more tempting than ever
table full of Thanksgiving food, plate of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, asparagus and cranberry sauce

This Thanksgiving, we have more on our minds than turkey and stuffing our faces. It’s 2020, and we all know what that means: COVID-19 disruption.

Thanks to physical distancing and a call for small gatherings, Thanksgiving will look different this year. Yet, some traditions will go on, including all the holiday fixings (after all, comfort food is in order during times like these). Instead of worrying about calories, Lisa Mallonee, professor and graduate program director for the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene at the Texas A&M University College of Dentistry, suggests looking at the big picture.

With Thanksgiving being a very food-centric holiday, being mindful shouldn’t mean restrictive, said Mallonee, a registered and licensed dietitian who abides by an 80/20 approach. That means eating healthy 80 percent of the time and allowing for splurges the other 20 percent.

“Foods are so much more than just nourishment. The key is learning to balance it as a whole over a week or even over a day versus just kind of losing control at one sitting,” Mallonee said. “My philosophy is moderation. It’s not easy for everyone, but you should have a ‘live it’ versus a diet. You can enjoy foods and not restrict them in your diet. That practical mindset is much needed during the holidays. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, it’s just a wash.”

She recommends kicking off Thanksgiving Day with a veggie tray: vitamin-A-and-C-enriched crunchy celery, carrots, cucumbers and bell peppers, served with dip or hummus. “Some healthier snacks while you’re waiting for dinner allows you more room for those little splurges you want to enjoy during your meal,” Mallonee said.

Typical holiday fare like turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie and Brussels sprouts have oral health benefits, too. Besides added vitamins and minerals, they can also help tooth enamel, gum health and more.

Lifestyle choices also should factor into holiday happenings—and that includes exercise.

“I always encourage people to be active,” Mallonee said. She suggests taking a family walk. Every year, Mallonee and her sister participate in a Thanksgiving morning fun run, although this year’s will be virtual. For the first time in 12 years, Mallonee won’t be traveling to see her family in Raleigh, North Carolina. The sisters will walk five miles “together” while they FaceTime.

The tradition must go on, she said, including their annual treat: “We always stop by Starbucks for a skinny vanilla latte with two pumps of pumpkin spice. No whip.”

While exercise helps burn calories and reduce stress, it’s also been linked to good oral health.

“The importance of exercise is not just for your body but your overall health,” Mallonee said.

She points to two studies that link physical activity and oral health. In “Increased physical activity reduces prevalence of periodontitis,” Mohammad S. Al-Zahrani and co-authors examine how exercise may benefit dental health, and in “Cross-sectional association of physical activity and periodontal antibodies,” A. Paige Anderson and co-authors explore how fitness affects periodontal antibodies. Results showed that participants who were more physically fit had improved periodontal status. In Al-Zahrani’s study, those more physically active with a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) were 54 percent less likely to experience periodontitis compared to their less active peers.

This story by Kathleen Green Pothier originally appeared in Dentistry Insider.

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