This Thanksgiving, do as the Romans do.
No, you don’t need to plan your holiday feast around pasta, pizza or breads. But you might do well to take a page from the Italians when it comes to the structure of your holiday meals, according to Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
In Italy, as well as many other European nations, the custom is to break up formal meals into several courses, sometimes including as many as nine separate dishes over the span of several hours. Because of the careful presentation of the food and the time between servings, each course becomes a small event. It also prevents gorging, because the built-in delay helps promote a feeling of fullness.
“The American tradition of family-style meals where you pile multiple items on your plate all at once invites people to overeat,” said Prescott, a physician and medical researcher. “People eat too fast or they feel obligated to finish what is in front of them. By spreading dishes out and taking your time, you can still eat what you like but in a more controlled way.”
Prescott came upon this revelation by happenstance during a visit to speak at a conference in Rome in the ‘90s. He and his wife checked into their hotel on Thanksgiving morning and went to the restaurant planning to dine on some exquisite Italian cuisine. “The special of the day, we found, was a traditional American Thanksgiving,” he said. “It wasn’t at all what we expected.”
The Prescotts stuck with their plan and ordered Italian classics, but they observed an elderly Roman woman who decided to be adventurous.
“The lady asked what ‘Thanksgiving’ was and placed her order, ready for a real American treat,” said Prescott. “Instead of serving her a plate piled high and smothered in gravy, they brought out her meal in courses.”
First came the cornbread stuffing—a reasonable serving. Next, they served her a small plate of sliced turkey with a little cranberry sauce on the side, and so on and so forth. Each course was carefully displayed and presented over approximately an hour and a half.
“She seemed to really enjoy it, and we thought it was a fascinating deconstruction of our traditional Thanksgiving meal,” he said. “It was American food served Italian style, in a leisurely way, so she could savor each course and not feel stuffed at the end of the meal.”
According to the American Council on Exercise, Americans take in more than 3,000 calories during the average Thanksgiving dinner. That figure results in an average consumption of 4,500 calories during the day overall, more than twice the recommended daily intake for an average person.
Eating quickly also disrupts the “I’m full” signals sent by the digestive system to the brain: the ones that tell you you’ve had enough to eat. By the time the brain has received the signal, you already may have gobbled down thousands of extra calories.
Adopting a slow-paced, portion-based approach might not only be healthier, it could even help eliminate the guilt factor.
“Overeating is by far the most important issue on holidays, even more than what foods you decide to eat,” said Prescott. “You could eat nothing but pie and avoid gaining weight or feeling bloated simply by focusing on portion control and taking your time.”
Prescott’s advice is to eat what you love but in moderation. Don’t deny yourself the dark meat, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole or whatever it is that you crave this time of year. Instead, make eating each holiday delight an event. You can still splurge, but by spacing out your courses, you won’t have to worry as much about the huge calorie hit or adding extra pounds.
“If your Thanksgiving is a huge spread with 43 dishes available, don’t feel obligated to try them all,” Prescott said. “Pick four or five of your favorites and savor them slowly. Then smile, hug the cooks and pronounce the meal ‘delizioso!’”