We eat a ton on Thanksgiving — about 4,500-plus calories, according to the Calorie Control Council. Many of us look forward to stuffing our faces and welcome the food coma that follows, but in the spirit of the original Thanksgiving meal, which consisted of indigenous foods Natives presented to the Europeans as an offering of health, we broke down the modern, most popular dishes of Turkey Day by the calories and nutrients to get back to the root of the feast.
“The meal we’re having today is an adulterated version of the original,” says Adam Kelinson, high-performance nutritionist, organic chef, and creator of Organic Performance. “Try and have an understanding of where your food came from. We tend to be so detached from the genesis of that original Thanksgiving story and meal.”
Along with Kelinson, The Manual asked two celebrity fitness trainers how to burn off the calories per dish.* Our experts include Michael Olajide Jr., a former champion boxer and fitness expert that has trained Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Will Smith, and Mark Langowski, fitness guru and sought-after trainer.
Understanding the caloric breakdown and exercise it takes to negate our favorite Thanksgiving dishes may make you more mindful when slopping on a second helping of sweet potato casserole. Or not, which is fine also. “It’s one of those meals where calories don’t count,” Kelinson says.
Let’s dig in.
206 calories per 1/2 cup
Our experts agree turkey is your friend on Thanksgiving. “You’re going to have a lesser amount of calories with turkey being a leaner meat,” says Kelinson, and you’ll reap all the good nutrients if your turkey is sourced well.
- Make it healthier: Langowski suggests to “focus more on the lean turkey meat without the skin.”
- Burn the calories: Work strength, since turkey is rich in protein. “Use an upper-body peddler to work your arms, shoulder, and core. It burns a ton of calories,” says Olajide Jr. “Also, since you have a protein foundation, add pull ups, push ups, squats, and benches.
Mashed Potatoes with Gravy
89-183 calories per 1/2 cup
With all these Thanksgiving dishes, calories and nutrients will differ depending on the additional components added (i.e. butter, sugar, etc.). For the most part, “I’d say dig into the mashed potatoes and gravy because it has a lot of great fats and nutrients,” Kelinson says. “Mashed potatoes, in terms of calories, is just fat, but just because fat has the most calories it doesn’t mean it’s the worst thing for you. Your fats are going to give you satiety, so you won’t wind up eating as much.”
- Make it healthier: “Go easy on the gravy,” says Langowski. “A cup of this will set you back about 250 calories.”
- Burn the calories: Langowski suggests a 30-minute jog.
Green Bean Casserole
250 calories per 1 cup
Looking at calories, you might not find a lot in grean bean casserole, but it comes down to how it’s prepared. Langowski suggests not thinking of this dish as a “vegetable,” and Kelinson adds that since green beans aren’t seasonal during Thanksgiving, you won’t get the most nutrient bang anyways.
- Make it healthier: Have plain green beans instead.
- Burn the calories: Jump rope for 20 minutes.
Sweet Potato Casserole
650 calories per 1 cup
Yes, that is a ton of calories. “With the casserole, you are adding butter and marshmallows,” explains Langowski.
- Make it healthier: Sweet potatoes are Langowski’s go-to Thanksgiving dish, but only if they are plain and baked.
- Burn the calories: A brisk walk around the block … for three hours.
Mac and Cheese
150-200 calories per 1/2 cup
A dense amount of calories plus a lot of fat means “you should either choose this or dessert,” says Kelinson. “If you’re looking to keep control of calories during this meal, stay away from mac and cheese.”
- Make it healthier: Ironically, choosing full-fat cheeses will impart your mac with great fats that will be both tasty and healthy, according to Kelinson.
- Burn the calories: Cardio. “In this dish, there’s protein, but also a lot of really high carbs, and a lot of people tend to not burn their carbs,” says Olajide Jr. Cardio will put you in a deficit when it comes to calories.
Brussel Sprouts with Bacon
190 calories per 1 cup
Unlike green bean casserole, Brussel sprouts are “seasonally appropriate, so you’ll get your highest nutritional value,” Kelinson says. “But once again, you’re caught in the fat realm … but I don’t classify bacon as an unhealthy food, depending on where it comes from.”
- Make it healthier: If you’re working toward a fitness goal, you’re better off eating turkey and salad. Or drinking your Thanksgiving meal in shots (just kidding).
- Burn the calories: Olajide Jr. says, due to all the saturated fats in this dish, you need to rely on cardiovascular exercise and jump rope or get your muscle endurance going by spinning. “I tend to go for upper body cardio like boxing, running, or dance because saturated fats tend to coagulate around your midsection so you need to move your core and move it fast.” Jump rope for 10 minutes (equivalent to a 30-minute run, says Olajide Jr.).
179-389 calories per half cup
Although dense in the sense of bread, Kelinson says stuffing is at the lower end of calories, even though there’s typically another fat component added (i.e. sausage or bacon sautéed in butter).
- Make it healthier: “In terms of calorie control, eat the turkey and leave the stuffing,” Kelinson says.
- Burn the calories: Olajide Jr. explains that, to burn off stuffing, you have to exhaust your resources, and there’s no quicker way than jump rope intervals. Do 10 second of double-turn jumps, rest 1-2 minutes, and go again. Do 10 intervals. You’ll also get a killer after-burn.
400-500 calories per slice
Most people are shocked to learn a single slice of pecan pie can have 500 calories, which is due to a density of nutrients and tons of sugar like processed corn syrup — “that’s where you get the stickiness,” Kelinson elaborates. “You get into the realm of corn syrup, GMOs, and highly-processed foods and you’re in the danger zone. Forget about the calories.”
- Make it healthier: Pick pumpkin pie instead.
- Burn the calories: Thirty grueling minutes of burpees, says Langowski.
243 calories per slice
The “internals” of pumpkin pie typically have no corn syrup and are made with maple syrup and cream, so “this is a better dessert choice, no doubt about it,” says Kelinson.
- Make it healthier: Don’t eat dessert. (Is that an option? No, no it’s not.)
- Burn the calories: Pumpkin pie tastes good and has a lot of sugar, so use that spike of energy to do wind sprints. “Hit it hard and attack it, you’ll have the sugar high and energy for 30-40 yard dashes with 30-second breaks between. Do 4 sets and it doesn’t matter how fast you sprint, just be as fast as you can,” Olajide Jr. says.
*Exact calorie amounts can differ depending on ingredients, preparation, and serving size, and each man digests and metabolizes according to his own body.