As a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and a UESCA-Certified Endurance Nutrition Coach, I work with a lot of athletes and everyday individuals trying to lose weight or tailor their nutrition to support muscle building, fat loss, or optimal exercise performance.
There’s one thing that is universally difficult for people who are trying to lose weight or stick with a particular dietary pattern, navigating the holidays.
In the United States, Thanksgiving dinner is an especially overwhelming “obstacle“ to your diet if you are keen on sticking with your weight loss plans.
So, what are the best tips to navigate Thanksgiving dinner without blowing your diet and what are the healthiest Thanksgiving dinner foods?
In this nutrition guide, we will discuss how to manage Thanksgiving dinner based on your dietary needs, the healthiest Thanksgiving foods, the Thanksgiving foods highest in calories, and tips for making healthier Thanksgiving dinner meals.
Let’s get started!
What Is the Best Thanksgiving Dinner for Weight Loss?
It’s important to state upfront that food is part of culture, socializing, community, and love.
Even if you are on a strict weight loss diet, it is more than acceptable to indulge as much as you would like to during the holidays and try and enjoy foods that might otherwise not be part of your regular diet or nutrition plan.
This Thanksgiving dinner diet guide is not intended to cause feelings of shame or guilt about eating Thanksgiving dinner and enjoying whatever pumpkin pie, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, or a big turkey leg that you want to eat.
However, if you do want to know which Thanksgiving foods are lowest in calories or which Thanksgiving foods are “bad for you,“ then you might find some of this information helpful.I work with a range of clients looking to lose weight and/or follow a particular diet to support athletic performance, fat loss, or muscle building.
Some of these clients are of the mindset that they want to just enjoy the holidays and get back on the diet plan the day after Thanksgiving, and I completely support that, and frankly, I advocate for doing that.
However, I also have nutrition clients who prefer to try and eat the healthiest Thanksgiving dinner or make healthier Thanksgiving dinner swaps to support their weight loss.
In these cases, it can be helpful to know the calories in Thanksgiving foods, the healthiest Thanksgiving foods, and the least healthy Thanksgiving foods.
That said, I am also not a proponent of ascribing labels like “good foods“ and “bad foods.“
While certain Thanksgiving foods are universally considered to be healthier based on their nutritional profile, Thanksgiving foods that are bad for you or the “worst Thanksgiving foods to eat“set up a mindset of depravity.
In most cases, as long as you are not eating a ton of ultra-processed foods, eating reasonable servings of most Thanksgiving foods is certainly not going to derail your diet.
What Thanksgiving Foods Are Keto?
Turkey will be your best option for low-carb Thanksgiving foods. If you are on the keto diet, you should have dark meat because it is higher in fat and protein.
White meat is lower in calories and higher in lean protein, which can work well for low-carb diets, but with the keto diet, you should prioritize fat to stay in ketosis.
Depending on how the gravy is made, you might be able to eat gravy. However, most gravy uses corn starch, which is very high in carbohydrates.
Consider using chicken stock or turkey stock instead.
Vegetable side dishes can also work if you prepare them differently.
Instead of mashed potatoes, you could have mashed or riced cauliflower for a low-carb Thanksgiving side dish. Steamed or roasted Brussels sprouts cooked in olive oil are a great healthy Thanksgiving side dish.
You can also deviate from the traditional Thanksgiving dinner foods with a green salad, avocado eggboats, sautéed greens, roasted portobello mushrooms, or other low-carb vegetables for Thanksgiving.
You will not be able to have cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, traditional stuffing or cornbread stuffing, regular mashed potatoes, apple pie, pumpkin pie, or pecan pie on a low-carb Thanksgiving diet dinner plate.
Thanksgiving Calorie Guide
It’s difficult to provide specific Thanksgiving food calories because it really depends on how certain Thanksgiving foods are prepared.
However, here are a few estimates for how many calories are in Thanksgiving foods to help you make decisions on the lowest-calorie Thanksgiving foods and highest-calorie Thanksgiving foods.
Calorie Count For Typical Thanksgiving Foods
- Turkey: 3.5 ounces of white meat with skin (about the size of a deck of cards) has 177 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 30 grams of protein; a similar portion of dark meat turkey with skin has 206 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 27 grams of protein.1FoodData Central. (n.d.). Fdc.nal.usda.gov. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171493/nutrients
- Stuffing: ½ cup serving (the size of an ice cream scoop) has about 195 calories and a whopping 480 mg of sodium.
- Mashed Potatoes: 115 calories when made with whole milk and butter for a half cup.
- Gravy: ¼ cup has about 50 calories and a lot of salt.
- Candied Sweet Potatoes: ½ cup has 190 calories and 20 grams of sugar.
- Green Bean Casserole: 227 calories for a ½-cup serving when made with Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup and crispy fried onions.
- Canned Cranberry Sauce: 110 calories per ¼-cup serving and 22 grams of sugar.2FoodData Central. (n.d.). Fdc.nal.usda.gov. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173961/nutrients
- Cornbread: 200 calories for a 3×3-inch slice. Adding a tablespoon of butter on top will bump you up another 120 calories.
Comparing Pie Calories
Pumpkin pie has the fewest calories per slice when comparing apple pie vs pumpkin pie vs pecan pie.
The calories in a pie slice that is ⅛ of a 9-inch pie are approximately:
- Pumpkin pie: 280 calories per slice
- Apple pie: 415 calories per slice
- Pecan pie: 500 calories per slice
Tips for Navigating Thanksgiving Dinner On a Diet
Here are some tips for getting through Thanksgiving dinner if you are trying to lose weight and don’t want to just enjoy the day and then get back on your diet the next day.
#1: Bring a Healthy Dish
If you aren’t in charge of cooking Thanksgiving dinner yourself, or your family has a potluck-style Thanksgiving, bring a healthy dish yourself.
For example, instead of making mashed potatoes, you could make mashed cauliflower for a low-carb mashed potato swap.
Instead of making green bean casserole with condensed mushroom soup and crispy noodles on top, you could make steamed green beans with lemon juice dressing and slivered almonds.
If you are responsible for bringing something that is healthier, you can eat more of that food and cut back on some of the high-calorie Thanksgiving side dishes.
#2: Don’t Starve Yourself
Unless you are practicing intermittent fasting regularly, it is best to follow your normal diet for breakfast and lunch, depending on the time of day that your family eats the Thanksgiving dinner meal.
If you starve yourself, you are more likely to overindulge at Thanksgiving dinner or load up on high-calorie appetizers and alcoholic drinks because you are famished by 2 or 3 PM.
If you are eating Thanksgiving dinner at an odd time, have your normal breakfast and then at least a light healthy snack at lunch like fresh vegetables and hummus or a salad with protein.
#3: Dial Back Alcohol
One easy way to cut calories at Thanksgiving dinner is to cut back on the amount of alcohol you drink.
Stick with one or two drinks at most, and try to have water, club soda, or other non-caloric beverages instead of beer, wine, and sugary cocktails.
#4: Plan Ahead
I have found that when there is a buffet of food, people tend to eat more because of the number of choices.
One tip to navigate Thanksgiving dinner on a weight loss diet is to plan ahead and think about which dishes you would like to have.
Either stick with a specific serving size for each, such as a tasting portion, or just pick 3 to 4 foods that you will eat rather than mindlessly sampling everything and then feeling compelled to finish it even if you do not like something you have put on your plate.
#5: Know Your Portion Sizes
The biggest problem that people often have with Thanksgiving dinner calories is with portion sizes.
If you stick with reasonable portions, you can enjoy most things on the Thanksgiving dinner table without going overboard on your calories.
Particularly with calorie-dense Thanksgiving foods such as sweet potato casserole, canned cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing, and pecan pie, think about giving really sticking with a small portion.
Try to stay under the size of your fist for foods like high-carb Thanksgiving side dishes and just a thumb-size portion for gravy and cranberry sauce.
You can learn more about portion control for weight loss here.
#6: Get Moving
Try a Turkey Trot or family walk to keep your metabolism humming on Thanksgiving Day!
Overall, your goal should be to enjoy the holidays and to get rid of any guilt about taking a break from your diet.
There’s plenty of evidence3Cruwys, T., Norwood, R., Chachay, V. S., Ntontis, E., & Sheffield, J. (2020). “An Important Part of Who I am”: The Predictors of Dietary Adherence among Weight-Loss, Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, and Gluten-Free Dietary Groups. Nutrients, 12(4), 970. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12040970 to show that “cheat meals” can actually help people stick with weight loss plans in the long term and may actually stoke the metabolism for better weight loss results.
No matter how you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season.
- 1FoodData Central. (n.d.). Fdc.nal.usda.gov. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171493/nutrients
- 2FoodData Central. (n.d.). Fdc.nal.usda.gov. Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173961/nutrients
- 3Cruwys, T., Norwood, R., Chachay, V. S., Ntontis, E., & Sheffield, J. (2020). “An Important Part of Who I am”: The Predictors of Dietary Adherence among Weight-Loss, Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, and Gluten-Free Dietary Groups. Nutrients, 12(4), 970. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12040970