Those of us with chronic health conditions tend to live by the book: carefully monitoring sleep duration and patterns, activity levels and types, and what (and when) we eat. All of this detail surrounding what most people take for granted – health – can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. What would happen if you decided to give yourself a day off?
Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday of the year for many of us. Without the stress of gift-giving nor the potential polarities of a religious celebration, it’s a day everyone can simply take a break to join family and friends in celebrating – and eating.
What would Thanksgiving be without the feast? We start with cranberry muffins for breakfast, then segue into a mid-morning coffee and pumpkin doughnut break as guests begin to gather.
Finally, after hours of preparation, we sit down together to enjoy The Meal: turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, squash, dinner rolls… and, of course, pie.
Most Americans look forward to this traditional meal with great anticipation. For some, the food itself is the allure: who can resist the crackling-crisp skin on a turkey leg, or the melting rivulets of butter on a warm roll?
For others, the simple fact of gathering around a big table with family and friends is the greater attraction. Laughter, smiles, memories – Thanksgiving, couched as it is in a simple spirit of gratitude, has a way of surfacing the best part of all of us.
For some, though, Thanksgiving dinner brings up a maelstrom of emotions: fear, guilt, and even anger.
If you’re desperately trying to lose weight, the Thanksgiving feast is a minefield of calorie-and fat-laden temptations. Monitoring blood sugar? It’s tough when most of the choices aren’t going to bode well for your next reading.
Or perhaps your health concerns are long-term rather than immediate. Cancer survivors need to keep in mind which foods might encourage a recurrence, and which, conversely, might help prevent one. Battling osteoporosis? You just might want to avoid the pre-dinner drinks – both alcohol, and caffeinated sparkling.
As I said – it’s complicated. And that’s where the anger comes in, along with the fear and guilt.
“Why can’t I simply eat everything I want and enjoy myself, like everyone else?” you might think. “It’s no fair having to worry about every single thing I put in my mouth.”
You’re right. In an American democracy sort of way, it’s NOT fair that you don’t have the same opportunity to eat a carefree meal as those around you.
But that’s life—it’s not fair, as anyone past the age of 10 realizes. A chronic health condition that dictates what you can vs. shouldn’t eat is your challenge. Your cousin across the table is dealing with alcoholism; your next-door neighbor is fighting depression; and your daughter’s been out of work for 6 months. Trust me, one way or another we all have the devil on our back.
You can deal with this fact by sucking it up, fighting off those food temptations 24/7, 365 days a year.
Or you can assess the potential damage of giving yourself a break every now and then: not simply succumbing to the temptation of an Oreo or bowl of mashed potatoes, but planning for and anticipating it.
Sure, there are those who can never eat certain foods without immediate negative consequences: celiacs eating gluten-free, for instance. Or those with diabetes having to be super-careful – or face the consequences.
But if your concerns are more long-term – weight loss, cancer recurrence, bone strength – you might consider giving yourself a one-meal break: especially on Thanksgiving.
Go ahead, enjoy a piece of deep-fried turkey. Pour gravy on those white potatoes. Cut yourself a piece of pumpkin pie, and don’t go easy on the whipped cream. Truthfully, is this one meal a life-or-death deal?
If the answer is no, then forget the fear. Cast aside the guilt. Decide that you simply won’t worry about cancer or [insert your condition] for this one day and, instead, will enjoy every mouthwatering bite.
Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. So say a silent prayer of thanks that you have the wherewithal to put food on the table; you have a loving community around you; and that your health is good enough that you can enjoy both.
Then dig in!
Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.