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updated 12/3/2003 8:09:51 PM ET 2003-12-04T01:09:51

Whether you’re counting carbohydrates, watching calories, or just trying to eat healthy, Thanksgiving doesn’t have to derail your dieting efforts. With a little planning, experts say you can satisfy your holiday cravings and enjoy a guilt-free Thanksgiving feast.

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THE FIRST step is adopting the right attitude. Thanksgiving is just the beginning of an entire season of temptation, and dieters should have realistic expectations going into the holiday blitz.

“A healthy approach during the holidays is to just try to maintain your weight,” says Los Angeles-based registered dietitian Bettye Nowlin. “Most people gain weight during the holidays, so if you can maintain your weight, you should pat yourself on the back.”

Preparing for the feast
Experts say dieters shouldn’t view Thanksgiving as a day of extreme excess or extreme restriction.

Instead, the best plan of attack is to eat a variety of protein, fat, and carbohydrates throughout your day. If you try to eliminate any one category, you’ll likely end up feeling deprived and may compensate by overeating.

A successful strategy starts at breakfast.

“By including a little protein in your breakfast, you’ll feel a little more satiated and perhaps less likely to want to snack on things leading up to your big Thanksgiving meal,” says Lola O’Rouke, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietitian Association.

Bring on the Turkey

Thanksgiving isn’t called “Turkey Day” for nothing, and roast turkey gets high marks from dietitians for overall nutrition.

Turkey is a lean source of protein, making it fair game for low-carb dieters, but Nowlin says to beware of “self-basting” turkeys, which are injected with extra fat to keep the meat juicy. Although the meat itself, especially white meat, is low in fat, the skin and gravy that come with it are not.

You can skim off some of the excess fat from the turkey drippings with a spoon or by refrigerating it before making the gravy. But O’Rourke says dieters should treat gravy like they do fatty salad dressings, and avoid drowning their food in it. As an alternative, try pouring a little gravy in a corner of your plate and dipping your food into it rather than pouring it all over the plate.

Slimming side dishes

When it comes to selecting your sides, experts say there’s lots of room for creativity.

“Mashed potatoes are one of the traditional foods where there is perhaps the greatest leeway,” says O’Rourke. “You can go a long way in either direction and make them pretty high in fat by adding butter and sour cream, or you can make them very reasonable in terms of calorie content by using chicken broth or turkey broth as a liquid or using 1 or 2 percent milk instead of cream.”

Another way to add a lot of flavor to potatoes without adding extra calories is to mash them with a few cloves of roasted garlic, which adds a mellow garlic flavor.

Stuffing can also get a low-carb Thanksgiving makeover and added nutrition by using a whole-wheat or reduced-carbohydrate bread and adding other ingredients to take some of the bulk away from the bread or even replace it altogether, such as:

  • Chopped vegetables (onion, celery, mushrooms, and eggplant)
  • Nuts (toasted walnuts, pecans, or almonds)
  • Fruits (fresh or dried cranberries, apples, apricots, or pears)
  • Wild rice
  • Oysters

Deciding on dessert
“I don’t think when you’re picking dessert that you really want to be considering which is providing you more nutrients,” says O’Rourke. “I think you want to look at what you’re going to enjoy.”

But if calories or carbohydrates still haunt you, O’Rourke and Nowlin offer these tips:

Pumpkin mousse or soufflé is a festive, low-carb, and lower calorie alternative to pumpkin pie.

Pie crust is a major source of fat and calories. Opt for one-crust pies rather than two-crust pies or eat only the filling.

Use nonfat or reduced-fat whipped topping rather than full-fat whipped cream.

“I encourage people to have what they want, but have it in a moderate quantity,” O’Rourke tells WebMD.

Rather than worrying too much about dessert, experts say it’s a better idea to go out for a walk between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. It’ll help burn off some of the calories you ate at dinner and leave you in a better mental and physical state to face the dessert table and the rest of the holiday season.

WebMD content is provided to MSNBC by the editorial staff of WebMD. The MSNBC editorial staff does not participate in the creation of WebMD content and is not responsible for WebMD content. Remember that editorial content is never a substitute for a visit to a health care professional.

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