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Health Beat: The hidden math of Thanksgiving calories

The key might be if, and how much, you drink.

I know my appetite control gets a little looser after a glass of wine (Hello, third dish of Barley House hummus dip) and Thanksgiving is no exception.

Statistically, the average American eats about 3,000 calories at Thanksgiving. Might seem hard to believe, but with one glass of wine hiding 120 calories on its own and lowering my resistance to shrimp cocktail, a second roll and a second piece of pie, I guess I can see the calories adding up.

One glass of wine becomes two, and all of a sudden I find myself wiping delicious buttery squash off my plate with chunks of bread and nibbling “just one more bite” off the edge of the stuffing.

Jim Eaton, owner and nutritional therapy practitioner at Evolutionary Eaton in Concord, has been following a modified paleo-type diet that shuns processed foods, especially processed sugars and flours, for about three years now.

Still, “I love food and there’s always such a variety around the holidays, it’s hard to pass up trying a little bit of everything,” Eaton says.

He plans to fill his plate with turkey and vegetables, and will bring his own baked goods made with coconut flour and sweetened with honey or maple syrup instead of refined sugar, he said.

If you go into holiday dinners with a clear plan and stick to it, it’s a lot easier not to overeat, says Donna Patch, dietician at the Center for Health Promotion at Concord Hospital.

The good news: The plan involves pie.

The bad news: It involves a pie chart, not real pie. Well, okay, a little bit of real pie.

“Thanksgiving is special. Most people are going to want to enjoy the special things they only get to have on Thanksgiving, so the idea can’t be about saying something is bad and don’t have it, but to contain some of the worst parts to a small section of your plate,” Patch said.

It’s the same idea behind MyPlate, the revamped nutrition guide presented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011.

Instead of a food pyramid telling us all to eat a strong foundation of grains, a bit of fruits, vegetables and protein and small amounts of fat, the plate is divided in four sections. Fruits and vegetables take up one half, with vegetables occupying a bit more than a quarter of the plate. Grains are in another corner, again occupying a bit more than a quarter, with the remainder for protein.

No, Patch said, mashed potatoes don’t count for your vegetable section. Neither does squash, I was horrified to learn.

“There are a lot of starchy selections: stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls, sweet potatoes, squash, corn,” she said.

Stuffing, especially if it comes chock full of white bread, sausage and butter, could pack 300 calories per serving, and studies have shown its rare for people to scoop out a perfect half-cup serving of something so delicious. We’re much more apt to overserve ourselves without realizing it.

“When it comes to recommending changes, you have to tread lightly around stuffing,” she said. “People are very attached to their special stuffing.”

Adding some chestnuts, celery and other vegetables and using low-sodium chicken broth for moisture instead of butter can cut that count by half, Patch said.

Even starchy vegetables are pretty dense in calories, from 80 to 100 calories per half-cup serving. And that’s before the butter, and assuming anyone can stick to half a cup of mashed potatoes.

“If you think about sectioning your plate, draw an invisible line down the center, and take half of it to incorporate nonstarchy vegetables: your green beans, carrots, Brussels sprouts, beets, kale and spinach,” she said.

The difference between a serving of nonstarchy vegetables roasted in a light coating of a healthy oil and a serving of starchy vegetables slathered in butter and whipped with cream? As many as 200 calories per serving.

There’s also a few different ways to eat the main course.

Some people might reach for the drumstick every Thanksgiving, enjoying the crispy skin and dark meat.

That’s fine, said Patch, as long as they know it’s about 230 calories more than a serving of white meat without the skin.

“There’s two things that stand out. The first is the portion. People easily eat twice as much meat as they mean to. Secondly, white meat versus dark and skin versus no skin,” she said.

A serving of protein should be about 3 ounces to fit in that slightly-less-than-a-quarter section of your plate.

Now, about that pie.

I tried to convince my mom when I was younger that apple pie was a fruit. It didn’t work then, and it didn’t work on Patch either.

Apple pie has, on average, 400 calories, almost twice as many per slice as pumpkin pie. Maybe just a slice of apple pie . . . if we cut out the wine and substitute water, that’s 120 calories; then skip the seconds on turkey, and we’ve got 235 calories.

Almost enough.

I wonder if doing all this mental math burns enough calories to cover a scoop of ice cream?

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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