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Your Thanksgiving meal by the calories (and how to burn them off)

Read this before the holiday and prepare to work off those extra calories

Thanksgiving turkey dinner on a table
HeartlandMom / Pixabay

According to the Calorie Control Council, we eat a ton on Thanksgiving — about 4,500 plus calories. Most of us look forward to stuffing our faces and welcoming the food coma that follows, but in the spirit of the original Thanksgiving meal, which consisted of indigenous foods Native Americans presented to the Europeans as an offering of health, we broke down the modern, most popular dishes of Turkey Day by the nutrients and calories to get back to the root of the feast.

“The meal we’re having today is an adulterated version of the original,” said 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, we 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 who 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 food 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 said.

Let’s dig in.

Turkey dinner spread close-up
Lauri Patterson / Getty Images


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,” Kelinson said, and you’ll reap all the good nutrients if your turkey is sourced well.

  • Make it healthier: Langowski suggested 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,” Olajide Jr. told us. “Also, since you have a protein foundation, add pull-ups, pushups, squats, and benches.”
Mashed potatoes and gravy
Alice Day / EyeEm / Getty Images

Mashed potatoes with gravy

89-183 calories per 1/2 cup

As with all these Thanksgiving dishes, nutrients and calories will vary 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 commented. “Mashed potatoes, in terms of calories, are 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,” Langowski said. “A cup of this will set you back about 250 calories.”
  • Burn the calories: Langowski suggested a 30-minute jog.
Green bean casserole
Lauri Patterson / Getty Images

Green bean casserole

250 calories per 1 cup

Looking at calories, you might not find a lot in green bean casserole, but it comes down to how it’s prepared. Most classic green bean casserole recipes call for heavier ingredients, such as cream of mushroom soup or a cheese sauce, and then it is topped with French fried onions, which can also add calories. Langowski recommended not thinking of this dish as a “vegetable,” and Kelinson added that since green beans aren’t seasonal during Thanksgiving, you won’t get the most nutrient bang, anyway.

  • Make it healthier: Have plain green beans instead.
  • Burn the calories: Jump rope for 20 minutes.
Sweet potato casserole
ftwitty / Getty Images

Sweet potato casserole

650 calories per 1 cup

Yes, that is a ton of calories. So while sweet potatoes on their own are relatively good for you, that does not necessarily make most sweet potato casseroles a very healthy dish. That’s because these casseroles are chock full of sugary and fatty ingredients, which certainly add flavor, but also add a ton of calories. “With the casserole, you are adding butter and marshmallows,” Langowski explained.

  • 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 3 hours.
Mac and cheese
4kodiak / Getty Images

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,” Kelinson told us. “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, which 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,” Olajide Jr. said. Cardio will put you in a deficit when it comes to calories.
Brussels sprouts with bacon
Manny Rodriguez / Getty Images

Brussels sprouts with bacon

190 calories per 1 cup

Unlike green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts are “seasonally appropriate, so you’ll get your highest nutritional value,” Kelinson said. “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. said that due to all the saturated fats in this dish, you need to depend 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, explained Olajide Jr.).
Thanksgiving stuffing
Manny Rodriguez / Getty Images


179-389 calories per half cup

Although dense in the sense of bread, Kelinson said stuffing is at the lower end of calories, even though there’s typically another fat component added (i.e. sausage or bacon sauteed in butter).

  • Make it healthier: “In terms of calorie control, eat the turkey and leave the stuffing,” Kelinson said.
  • Burn the calories: Olajide Jr. explained that, to burn off stuffing, you need to exhaust your resources, and there’s no quicker way than jump rope intervals. Do 10 seconds of double-turn jumps, rest for 1-2 minutes, and go again. Do 10 intervals. You’ll also get a killer after-burn.
Pecan pie
4kodiak / Getty Images

Pecan pie

400-500 calories per slice

We all know that desserts will typically be on the higher end of the calorie scale, but most people are surprised to learn that a single slice of pecan pie can have 500 calories, which is due to a density of nutrients and tons of sugar from ingredients like processed corn syrup — “that’s where you get the stickiness,” Kelinson elaborated. “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: 30 grueling minutes of burpees, Langowski said.
Thanksgiving dinner with pumpkin pie
Sarah Hotung / Shutterstock

Pumpkin pie

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,” Kelinson explained.

  • 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, ahd 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. said.

*Exact calorie amounts can differ depending on ingredients, preparation, and serving size, and each person digests and metabolizes according to their own body.

Thanksgiving dinner table at home.
izzet ugutmen / Shutterstock

Tips to reduce your Thanksgiving calorie intake

Now that we’ve given you the news about the calorie count that is waiting for you on Thanksgiving, we’ve got some fairly easy tips on how to help cut down on those calories, and still have a good time (and a nap on the couch during the football game).

  • Don’t come to Thanksgiving dinner starving. While you may want to save room for all of that yummy food, it’s not good to skip breakfast (and lunch if you eat Thanksgiving dinner later in the day). If you get to Thanksgiving dinner feeling ravenous, you’re most likely going to overeat, and those bigger meals will really pack on the calories (and likely have you reaching for the antacids later).
  • Don’t drink too much. Sure, we all want to have a cocktail (or three) on Thanksgiving, but keep it in moderation. If you drink too much, you will stimulate your appetite and that could lead to overeating.
  • You don’t have to eat everything on the menu. Yes, it might be hard to turn down a slice of your aunt’s pumpkin pie, but if you really don’t want it, say no, and save the calories for foods that you really enjoy.
Nate Swanner
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Nate is General Manager for all not-Digital-Trends properties at DTMG, including The Manual, Digital Trends en Espanol…
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