Why the best Thanksgiving diet includes giving yourself a break


The panic over weight gain starts at Thanksgiving, the best American holiday, for a number of perfectly acceptable reasons. Falling on a weekday, and marked by inactivity and sloth, with three meals’ worth of calories wrapped into one, the day is a gilded front door to gluttony that starts off a season of less than restrained eating. Maybe you diet again in January? Or feel guilty before?

It’s a distraction that discourages dieters or even derails them. We don’t all fall off the wagon, but the guilt — “I am doomed to a month of eating more cheese than I should” — is common enough to cause dread.

Though we do have options. Dieters with goals can deny the holiday and treat Thanksgiving dinner like a Thursday, forgoing sauces and sides for lower-macro lean proteins and vegetables. They can fast intermittently, skip breakfast, and eat unrestrained. Some lifters pack another meal in before, show up full, and peck. Others lift heavy that day and then gorge.

Then there’s “cheating,” where you treat a Thanksgiving meal like a Saturday dinner that’s exempt from a diet. Seconds, dessert. Cheat meals — occasional big dinners whose calories get ignored — are common in the barbell world, and feel tailored for Thanksgiving. They make diets seem less hard, and keep lifters going. They can even fix lagging metabolisms. Weight loss is a calorie deficit over time; enough leeway makes it work.

That same logic can apply to the month-long loosening after Thanksgiving. With a few restrictions, we can cheat, in effect, through it all.

The key is found in a study, published 17 years ago in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice. A group of subjects were put on diets and then told to go off them for two or six weeks. The study found they didn’t really gain weight — and had no trouble returning to their diets after.

The findings were tweaked and translated a few years later for lifters by Lyle McDonald, the trainer and guru behind macros counting and so many other foundations of modern athletic nutrition. Repurposing the findings as a “full diet break,” McDonald’s thesis, which he tested on his athlete clients, is about what it sounds like.

The FDB — On full diet break, which I’ll shorten to FDB, athletes eat at maintenance — trying not to lose weight — with more carbs than they would on a diet, for at least two weeks, and sometimes longer. The premise is an FDB breaks up a long diet into manageable chunks and gives the body and the brain a break.

McDonald’s approach, tested on lifters, is not just for athletes. While forcing in-shape folks that follow strict diets into weeks-long carb-friendly approaches can reset their thyroids — and regulate weight loss better down the line — a six-week break also offers a respite for people trying to lose large amounts of weight.

The FDB rests on an assumption that the diet it’s breaking from will be followed longer than the break. Most diets are long: even losing 10 pounds can take a couple of months. For people with more extreme weight loss goals — say, 100 pounds — it can take a year or two. The idea of staying hungry for that long is dispiriting. FDBs then are like highway rest stops, or massages: a pause that gets you ready for the next step. And if the protocol on an FDB is still vaguely strict — there are protein requirements, and calories to get eyeballed — it’s not specific. There’s no admonition, subtle or otherwise, to eat healthy or green. Instead, it’s a full, guilt-free break from the work and attention that diets require, and the physiological and psychological stress that they cause.

The takeaway — FDBs are tricky — some people get leaner during the first week — and point to the complexity of weight loss. Folks may also gain weight coming out of an FDB. But we weigh different things. Our post-Thanksgiving weight isn’t our real number, and neither is what we measure out after a morning run — it’s probably somewhere in the middle, taken as the average of a bunch of measurements.

So why do traditional diets focus on shrinking one number down? It doesn’t seem to matter if an FDB — McDonald’s, or the one in the study — pushes us to a couple of pounds over our average Sunday night measurement, not if it helps with testosterone, or rejuvenates the thyroid, or lessens stress.

If McDonald’s diet break isn’t designed for athletes, it’s at least made for macros counters. It’s still slightly restricted and requires some discipline, if only for the protein levels. Dieters are expected to keep lifting. That extra food helps; eating junk, which you shouldn’t totally do, might also help: you could miss the healthy stuff that helps better fuel a workout, and itch to get back to your program.

And it’s special for that reason: the break is a reorientation that moves weight loss away from a negative space and into a positive one. Cutting calories stinks: it’s deprivation. No one likes being hungry. But the worst part of dieting is its negativity. Everything is a shouldn’t; rules that treat you like a child. It’s all hand-slapping, with no reward — rotten internalizations that don’t seem healthy long term.

Here it’s a break and a rest, with the discipline up to the dieter, and the faith, backed up by numbers, that they’ll return. It’s an amazing thing for someone with a weight loss goal to not have to be anxious about the holidays, to welcome them. If we see the bumps in the road, we can stay on course.

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.



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