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When it comes to making good food choices, knowledge is power.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about making smart food choices and how the nutrition information we are provided with can complicate that process.


Making smart decisions about what you eat is an important step in losing weight, feeling better, and preventing and treating a host of health conditions. But doing so requires that you have the knowledge to make those healthy decisions. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good education in nutrition, forcing them to rely on information provided to them.

Some of this information comes from reputable sources and is based on research and experience. More often, though, nutrition information is provided by food manufacturers whose interests may not be consistent with providing smart recommendations. The end result is that consumers (that’s us) may not understand the information they get or know how to use it to make healthy choices.

A good example is the health claims about whole grains found on many food packages, including breakfast cereals. “A good source of whole grains,” is a common claim. Most people would reasonably interpret as a sign that the food inside is healthy, or at least is healthier than similar foods that don’t contain whole grains.

These types of claims are allowed by the FDA, but they refer only to what is in the food, not whether it is healthy or not. Many of the foods bearing this claim probably are healthy choices, but this isn’t always the case.

For example, Lucky Charms cereal contains whole grains. In fact, whole grains are the first ingredient, as the claim on the box indicates. Sounds good, right? But, when you read the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box you will find that the second ingredient is marshmallows! Does that sound like a healthy breakfast? (Hint: It’s not!)

Lucky_Charms package

 

This is the problem. If you are like most people, you won’t take the time to read the ingredients or the nutrition information on the back of the package. And even if you do, you may find that information to be confusing. Even if you wanted to make healthy choices, you might not have the knowledge to interpret and apply the available nutrition information.

This general lack of knowledge we have about nutrition has led to situations in which some foods are restricted or banned. Recently, the city of Berkeley, California voted to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in an effort to keep people from consuming too much sugar and too many calories.

This effort, and others like it, have contributed to a vigorous debate about personal choice and freedom for people to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink. One argument against these types of restrictions is that if people have the nutrition information about soda (or any other food) they can make informed choices.

This is a nice idea, but it simply isn’t fair to expect people to make good decisions if the information isn’t available or is not easy to understand. Worse, misleading information can lead to making bad decisions.

Help may be on the way. The FDA is working on a redesigned Nutrition Facts panel that should help us make better food choices. In particular, the amount of sugar added to foods will be listed. This change alone will help identify foods that may appear to be healthy, like Lucky Charms which contain whole grains, but are actually high in added sugar. Additional changes include more realistic serving sizes and better information about fat content.

It is unclear when the updated nutrition facts panel will be implemented. In the meantime, do your best to read labels and use common sense as your guide: The addition of marshmallows does not make any food any healthier, no matter how much whole grain it contains!

Much ado about nothing: Supplement-free dietary supplements

Dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, and herbs, are used by millions of people every day. In fact, over 50% of Americans regularly take dietary supplements. Maybe you are one of them. If so, you should be aware of some recent news that once again raises concerns about supplement use.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Miracle cure pill bottle

The most common reason people report taking dietary supplements is to improve or maintain their health in general, but many take them for specific reasons such as bone health or weight loss. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who take supplements are healthier than people who don’t. However, supplement users are more likely to eat better, exercise, and not smoke, all of which contribute to good health. [more details here.]

Given the claims made by supplement manufacturers, you may be surprised to learn that there is very little evidence to suggest that taking dietary supplements can improve your health. In fact, no scientific organization recommends the routine use of dietary supplements. Among the few exceptions is folic acid supplementation for women who are or who may become pregnant to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus. There aren’t many others.

While there is support for using vitamin or mineral supplements to address individual deficiencies, there is no reason to believe that taking supplements will do much to make a healthy person healthier. The fact that all supplements contain the statement, “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” should tell you something. At best, taking dietary supplements will cause few, if any, benefits; at worst, they may do harm.

There have long been concerns about the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. Ironically, this is by design. According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) manufacturers do not need to prove that their products are effective, only that they are safe. That said, there are instances in which the safety of dietary supplements has been questioned. [you can find tips for using dietary supplements safely here] Some can interfere with the way that other prescription and over-the-counter drugs work. Others may make certain health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, worse. And there is a concern that people might use dietary supplements to treat a condition rather than seeking medical help.

You may have seen in the news recently that the New York Attorney General is taking action against four major chain retailers for selling fraudulent and contaminated dietary supplements. DNA analysis showed that many of the supplements examined were completely lacking the active ingredient and contained other ingredients not listed on the label. In one case, a sample of St. John’s Wort contained no actual St. John’s Wort extract, but did contain the extract of a common house plant!

Some supplements undergo quality testing by independent labs, including U.S. Pharmacopeia and NSF International, and have labels which suggest that you are purchasing the actual substance. Keep in mind that this does not guarantee that the supplement will be safe or effective, just that it has been tested for purity.

Despite these questions about supplement purity, safety, and health benefits, there is nothing necessarily wrong with taking dietary supplements. If you choose to take supplements be aware of potential health risks, know that you may not be getting what you pay for, and don’t expect any miracles. And always make sure you tell your doctor which supplements you take to avoid any adverse reactions with other medications.

Finally, remember that no amount of dietary supplements can match the health benefits of good nutrition and regular physical activity.

Is chocolate healthy? The depends on what you mean by chocolate. And what you mean by healthy.

With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, you may be planning to get something sweet for someone special. Traditionally, this typically includes a box of chocolates. While candy isn’t really a healthy option, eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some health benefits.

The idea that chocolate may be healthy is no doubt welcome news for chocoholics. But it may leave you wondering if eating chocolate really is healthy. The answer depends on what you mean by chocolate and what you mean by healthy.

ChocolateA

First, it is worth understanding what it is about chocolate that may promote health. The health benefits of chocolate have to do with the fact that it comes from a plant, the cacao tree. Like many plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, chocolate contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have health benefits. Indeed, chocolate does contain antioxidant flavonoids that have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. These flavonoids are also found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as coffee, tea, and wine. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, and reduce stress.

The chocolate that we eat contains two main components from the cacao plant, cocoa and cocoa butter, in addition to added sugar and other ingredients. Cocoa is the non-fat component of the cocoa bean and cocoa butter is mostly fat. The flavonoids are found in the cocoa, so chocolate that is richer in cocoa, like dark chocolate, contains more of these beneficial compounds. For example, dark chocolate may contain 70% cocoa, compared to 25% cocoa in milk chocolate. These flavonoids also give dark (sometimes called semi-sweet) chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. This is also because dark chocolate may contain less sugar than milk chocolate, but this isn’t always true.

Milk chocolate contains more of the cacao butter along with other additives, usually milk. White chocolate is made exclusively from the cocoa butter and contains no cocoa, so none of the beneficial phytochemicals. Even though the fat in cocoa butter is mostly healthier monounsaturated and saturated fats, it still contains calories. Sugar, milk, and other ingredients also add calories, so chocolate is certainly something to enjoy in moderation.

One thing to keep in mind is that some of the research into the health benefits of chocolate was conducted in animals, not humans. And some of the research in humans used isolated extracts from the cacao plant, not chocolate. And when subjects were given chocolate it was dark chocolate that is high in cacao. The point is that the evidence for chocolate being healthy was not based on eating more Hershey’s bars!

But given the potential benefits, eating dark chocolate instead of other sweets such as cakes, cookies, and other candy is probably a good idea. Simply eating more chocolate in addition to other sweets will not make you any healthier, and the extra calories could lead to weight gain. Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa (sometimes listed on the label as cacao or cocoa solids) and remember that a small amount is enough.

Also keep in mind that many fruits contain the same antioxidants as chocolate, so a serving of berries, for example, is a better choice. And finally, achieving good health requires more than simply changing one aspect of what you eat, so include dark chocolate as a part of a diet that includes real food balanced by daily physical activity.

Eat slow, then fast. How and when you eat may be as important as what you eat for weight control.

What you eat is an essential part of achieving and maintaining good health. What you may not know is that when and how you eat can be just as important. This is especially true if your goal is to lose weight.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week describes  two ways that changing the way you eat can help you lose weight and keep it off. Neither of these are necessarily new ideas, but implementing them together may help you eat less.

First, eating more slowly can help you limit the amount of food you eat. Perhaps your mother admonished you to “slow down” at meals when you were young. This was good advice, for both practical and physiological reasons. In addition to controlling how much food you consume, eating more slowly is a good way to enjoy meals, both the food and the company, more fully.

You mother may also have told you to “chew your food.” too. This was probably to remind you to eat more slowly.  Almost 100 years ago Horace Fletcher recommended a process that involved chewing each bite of food 100 times. “Fletcherizing,” as it was called, was a way to reduce how much people ate, among other more dubious health claims.

There is a physiological reason to slow down, too. Your appetite is regulated by a host of factors, including the act of eating and the presence of food in your stomach. As you eat, your stomach fills. This triggers the release of hormones that signal your brain to reduce your appetite. The result is that as your stomach fills, you feel less hungry.

Once you start eating, it takes time for your stomach to release these hormones. Eating quickly, like many of us do, allows you to take in lots of calories before your brain gets the message that you are full. This is one factor that leads to overeating. But if you slow down at meals, you start to feel full before you eat as much. Research shows that this can lead to lower calorie intake during the meal.

Second, the time between meals may affect your metabolism in ways that result in less fat accumulation. Again, the concept of fasting between meals isn’t new, but recent research helps explain why eating less frequently may help prevent obesity and related conditions, including diabetes.

While this research was done using rats, the physiological concept may well apply to humans. In these studies, rats were put on a diet that included an overnight fast ranging from 8–12 hours. The researchers found that the rats that experienced a longer fasting period between meals had better insulin levels and less fat storage.

The reason for this seems to do with the gut microbiome, the bacteria that live in the intestine and play an important role in regulating metabolism. A longer period without food changes the nature of these good bacteria, promoting these benefits.

I first heard about this on Science Friday, which provides an excellent summary of this research.

It is unclear whether this same effect occurs in humans. Even without this evidence, adopting a fasting period between dinner and breakfast, which should be about 12 hours, seems prudent. At the very least, it will keep you from snacking in the evening, which almost certainly involves unhealthy choices.

An additional finding of this research is that the benefits of the 12-hour fast seem to persist, even through a day or two of more frequent eating. This is relevant, since many people do well to modify their eating habits during the week, but tend toward less restrained eating on the weekends. The fact that the benefits of an overnight fast most days of the week are maintained despite a “wild weekend” is good news!

The combination of what, when, and how you eat can make an important difference in how much you eat, the key to losing weight and keeping it off. As you try to make healthier food choices, consider eating more slowly and making dinner the end of your eating day.

It’s about time.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about time—why dedicating adequate time is essential for exercise and weight loss success and suggestions for how to spend your time to achieve health and fitness goals.


Improving your health through diet, exercise, and weight loss takes motivation and dedication. It also takes time. This includes time to learn about what you should (and shouldn’t) do as well as the time needed to modify these health habits. For many, the problem isn’t knowing what to do or how to get started, it is finding the time to stick with the program. In fact, the number one reason why people abandon their diet and exercise routine is lack of time.

Given that most people are busy—maybe too busy—with work, family, and other responsibilities, finding time to focus on health isn’t easy. But it is important, so the first step should be dedicating your time wisely to meet your goals. This involves time for planning, taking action, and monitoring your progress. In short, you should treat your diet or exercise program like a project, rather than an “extra” activity.

This idea is supported by behavior change research, workplace productivity programs, and the practical experience of real people who have gone through this process. Here are a few suggestions to help you dedicate the time you need to achieve your health and fitness goals.

Before you begin. Any health behavior change should begin with identifying what you want to change, setting realistic goals, and determining what information, resources, and support you will need. For example, if you want to lose weight you should have a goal weight and timeline in mind. You should also set both short-term (weekly) and long-term (monthly or longer) goals.

This is also a good time to determine when and how you will put your plan into action. If you need information about what to eat or decide to join a gym to exercise, put those components in place now. Looking at your calendar and scheduling time for preparing meals and daily exercise or making a weekly menu of meals and a grocery list before you go to the store are good ways to invest your time.

Getting started. Once you have yourself organized, it is time to begin! Hopefully, this is a bit easier since you planned ahead, but keep in mind that you will continually need to revisit and modify your plan. This is important because a major reason why people don’t succeed is that they don’t allow flexibility in their plan. Once things go awry, they give up. The key is to keep moving forward, even if the progress is slow.

Keeping track of your weight or a record of what you eat or what you do for exercise is a simple way to monitor your progress. Linking progress to rewards is important for keeping you motivated, but make sure the rewards are consistent with your goals.

Sticking with it. While starting a diet or exercise program can be challenging, it is also exciting and seeing progress can be motivating. The trick is to maintain that progress over time, especially when you aren’t seeing such big improvements. Knowing that things will not always go as planned can help you avoid a bad day or week from ruining your success. This is why dedicating time to thinking about “what if” scenarios and coming up with back-up plans is essential.

 

The secret to lasting weight loss or maintaining an exercise program isn’t so much the details of the program but spending the time to plan, get off to a good start, and maintain the changes you decide to make. In the end, it’s about the time you dedicate to developing healthy habits.

 

 

The five pillars of good health

What does it really take to live a healthy lifestyle? This is the topic of me Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Confusing and conflicting information can make improving your health especially challenging. Some advice is straightforward—quit smoking, for example. But other recommendations, especially those regarding nutrition and exercise, are less clear. In an effort to stay focused on the “big picture” I have created what I call the Five Pillars of Good Health. These are five habits that are the basis for achieving and maintaining good health.

Don’t Smoke.

Smoking doubles your risk of heart attack and stroke and is the leading cause of lung cancer. Second-hand smoke can affect the health of others, so these risks are not limited to the smoker.

If you smoke, quit now…no excuses! Newer prescription medications and over-the-counter nicotine replacement products can help, but quitting will require dedication, effort, and support.

Eat Smart.

Good nutrition is essential for preventing and treating most chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Perhaps the best way to cut through the conflicting nutrition information and diet claims is to simplify healthy eating to it’s most basic form: Eat real food, not processed “food.”

This isn’t easy, of course. One sure way to make better choices is to limit added sugars and salt, which are almost always present in processed foods. Strive to eat more whole fruits and fruit juices, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (like beans), lean meat, dairy, and nuts. If weight loss is a goal for you, reducing portion sizes will absolutely help you cut calories.

Move More.

This is a three-step process. First, sit less. Limit sedentary time at work and home and make opportunities to get up and move. The health effects of prolonged sitting are similar to not exercising. If you find yourself in stuck a chair for an hour, at least get up and stretch for a minute.

Second, move more. Look for ways to add activity to your everyday routine. This can include yard work and house work as well as using the stairs and parking further away in parking lots. Every additional step counts!

Third, dedicate time to be active every day. This can include activity such as taking the dog for walk as well as more structured exercise that includes endurance, resistance, and flexibility training. Strive for 30 minutes per day, but know that more is better.

Chill Out.

Chronic stress can have a powerful effect on your health. While it is not possible to eliminate all stress from your life, you should dedicate yourself to identifying and modifying sources of stress at work and home and learning to control your stress response.

Much of the stress of life comes down to not having enough time. Good time management, planning carefully, and setting priorities will certainly help reduce both long and short-term stress. You should also know that inadequate sleep adds to the health effects of stress, so strive to get enough sleep.

Make It Work For You.

This is the tricky part—how to actually make these changes. The first step is to make good health a priority and dedicate time and energy to your efforts. No doubt you have tried some of these changes before, you probably have an idea of what does and doesn’t work for you. Try something different this time around. The support of others is essential, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get your friends and family involved, too. They will certainly benefit from joining you on your journey toward better health.

 

 

 

Not sure where to begin to improve your health? A guide to taking the first step

If you are thinking about losing weight, becoming more active, or quitting smoking you are not alone. These are three of the most common health-related New Year’s resolutions. Considering that two-thirds of American adults are overweight, about half don’t meet minimum recommendations for physical activity, and one in five smoke, there are many people who need to change more than one of these behaviors.

Quitting smoking and changing eating and exercise habits to lose weight or improve fitness are among the most difficult behavior changes to make, especially at the same time. Some people focus on one change to begin with.

Obviously, changing all three of these behaviors is ideal, but if you are only willing to change one, which should you take on first to have the biggest impact on your overall health? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

You might think that quitting smoking would be the most important change to make initially. Smoking is the primary cause of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases the risk of most other cancers and is a major contributor to heart attacks and strokes. Quitting smoking greatly reduces these risks with beneficial changes that begin within days of quitting. Despite this, if you only want to change one behavior, smoking isn’t the place to start.

Being overweight is a leading cause of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and some cancers. If you are overweight, losing just 10% of your body weight (20 lbs. for a 200 lb. person) can significantly reduce the severity of these conditions. Maintaining a healthy body weight can prevent many of these health problems. However, losing weight is not the first change you should make.

It turns out that becoming physically active is the most important change you can make to improve your overall health. Decades of research show that regular physical activity reduces the risk of most chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers and can extend the lifespan by up to five years. In fact, the health risks of inactivity are equal to or greater than that of obesity or smoking. Regular activity also improves muscular strength, aerobic fitness, bone density, cognitive function, and memory. There is no other single intervention—drugs included—that has as many health benefits.

Research also shows that the negative health effects of being overweight and obesity are, in part, caused by inactivity and poor fitness. If you are overweight but physically fit, your risk of death is lower than if you are at a “healthy” weight but unfit. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of diabetes in people who are overweight, whether they lose weight or not. Furthermore, studies of “successful losers” show that daily exercise is a requirement for long-term weight loss, so becoming active now can help you lose weight later.

You should change all three of these behaviors to achieve optimal health. But if you are looking for an initial step that will have the biggest impact, start by becoming more active. A good initial goal is to reduce the time you spend being sedentary (sitting) and to get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as a brisk walk, each day. You can get greater benefits by participating in more intense exercise, including strength training, three or more days per week. And once you have established a routine of regular activity you will be ready to make other health changes.

The truth about holiday weight gain…and how to prevent it!

The holiday season has arrived. It is a time for shopping, spending time with family and friends, and eating, often too much. The bad news is that weight gain between Thanksgiving and the New Year is a very real possibility. The good news is that the typical holiday weight gain is less than you might think. The even better news is that this weight gain can be prevented, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week

First, the bad news. Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound during the holidays. Even subjects who said they were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about 0.5 pounds on average. The problem is that this extra weight is not lost during the spring or summer, meaning that holiday weight gain is a major contributor to the gradual increase in weight (about one pound per year) most people experience over time.

Now for the good news: The weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since people tend to gain less than one pound, even small modifications to activity or diet can make a difference. Here are some strategies:

  1. Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by walking about one mile, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking farther away in the parking lot. Go for a walk before or after a family meal or party—take your family and friends with you.
  1. Don’t hang around the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food—literally, fill your plate and move away from the food. Using a smaller plate will reduce the amount of food you take, too. Getting rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home are also smart ideas.
  1. Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. For example, egg nog can contain over 300 calories per glass. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation.
  1. Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to the party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party make it something healthy that you like.
  1. Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy meals and events with family and friends, and that should be your focus. You should enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, just do it in moderation.

You can prevent holiday weight gain by watching what you eat and staying active. It is easier to keep the weight off than it is to lose it later, so a little extra effort now is worth it in the long run. Considering that many people plan to exercise and lose weight after the holidays, you could get a head start on your New Year’s resolutions along with making this a happy and healthy holiday season.

Advice for staying healthy for the holidays

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, the holiday season is in full swing. At the same time, though, we are in the midst of cold and flu season. In addition to the natural spread of cold and flu viruses at this time of year, the holiday season itself, with hectic schedules, stress, and lack of sleep, can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to getting sick.

The good news is that there is much you can do to keep yourself healthy for the holidays. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

For starters, getting a flu vaccine is the most sensible thing you can do to prevent seasonal influenza (flu). If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, it’s not too late. I have written about flu previously, including the fact that exercise may make your flu vaccine even more effective!

Another basic step in preventing sickness is to wash your hands regularly. Soap and water is best, and there is no additional benefit in using an antibacterial soap. If you can’t wash your hands, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative. Keep in mind that hand sanitizers don’t actually clean your hands and aren’t as effective if your hands are dirty.

Cold and flu viruses are spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so avoiding close contact with people who are sick is important. If you are sick, you should stay away from others as much as you can. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough or sneeze onto your sleeve to help keep the germs from spreading through the air or on your hands.

You can also be exposed to cold and flu viruses by touching something with virus on it (a doorknob, for example) and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. You can protect yourself by not touching your face and by washing your hands frequently.

People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds than people who aren’t regularly active. This is because exercise has the effect of stimulating the immune system, making it better able to respond when you are exposed to cold or flu viruses.

More exercise isn’t always better, though. Research shows that immune function is depressed in the weeks after running a marathon, leading to an increased risk of becoming sick. Athletes who engage in vigorous and prolonged training also tend to be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections. The bottom line is that regular exercise improves your immune system, but very vigorous exercise may not.

Good nutrition is also essential for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies.

You can get benefits from two more common-sense recommendations: getting adequate sleep and reducing stress. Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to colds and flu and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.

By taking these steps, you can improve your chances of celebrating the holidays in good health. As a bonus, eating a healthy diet, exercising every day, managing your stress, and getting enough sleep will give you a head start on what are likely to be New Year’s resolutions.

 

 

Take a lesson in healthy eating from your turkey this Thanksgiving.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about Thanksgiving dinner. With all the talk about how to make it a “healthier” meal by replacing traditional dishes and modifying recipes, I think we may be missing an important lesson in healthy eating.


This is Thanksgiving week, and people throughout the country are planning a feast including traditional dishes and family favorites. Even though many of these are not the healthiest choices, they make an appearance on the dinner table each year. Combined with the common occurrence of over-indulging, Thanksgiving dinner can represent a day of poor nutrition choices.

In an effort to make Thanksgiving dinner healthier, recommendations for modifying or replacing traditional dishes are a common theme in magazines, on the morning TV shows, and on the web. While these suggestions are meant to be helpful, I’m not sure they actually serve to make a significant impact on health.

After all, Thanksgiving is one day, and if there was ever a day to give yourself license to indulge, this is it! Of course, trying new foods and cooking techniques is always good, but the impact of replacing the butter in your mashed potatoes with fat-free sour cream or taking the marshmallow topping off Granny’s famous sweet potato dish isn’t realistically going to make you any healthier in the long run.

The truth is that if you eat a healthy diet every day, or even most days, and you have an active lifestyle you can get away with a day—or weekend—of overeating. (Obviously, you should always follow dietary restrictions for any medical conditions you have.) The problem comes when Thanksgiving dinner is yet another unhealthy meal in addition to the others that week or month.

Some of these recommendations are worth trying, for sure. Making an alternative to a traditional dish can get your family to try new foods they might not otherwise consider. And cooking using different ingredients or techniques on Thanksgiving can give you ideas for other meals, too.

However, focusing on modifying your Thanksgiving dinner may distract you from appreciating the greatest potential health benefit of this meal. Given the current confusion about how much and what type of carbohydrates and fats we should eat, there is an increased push to get us to eat less processed food and more real food.

For many of us, Thanksgiving dinner is one of the only times we cook and eat real food. A real turkey, vegetables, and home-made dessert are a huge improvement over the processed foods most of us eat on a daily basis. While we eat turkey at other times, it is almost always in a processed form such as ground turkey or deli meat, which frequently includes other additives. Cooking and eating a whole turkey is, for most families, relatively rare. So is eating a meal that doesn’t come from a restaurant or is heated in a microwave.

Additionally, Thanksgiving dinner is shared simultaneously around a common table (and maybe a kids’ table, too). All too often, meals are consumed away from the family table, frequently at different times. The benefits of eating together as a family are well-known, and can impact nutrition, psychological well-being, and health in general. Maybe Thanksgiving dinner isn’t about the food as much as it is the company. Why not make this a habit at other meals?

This week, let’s all give thanks for family, friends, and a shared meal. Let’s also take a lesson from the day and try to prepare and eat more real food as a family. This may be the biggest benefit of Thanksgiving. That, and a second serving of pumpkin pie!