From reconnecting with family and friends to enjoying lots of delicious, hearty food – there are lots of reasons to look forward to Thanksgiving! But if you’ve got digestive issues like IBS, SIBO, or IBD (a medical condition which can often fly under the radar and disguise itself as IBS), Thanksgiving likely isn’t always all rainbows and unicorns. Food allergies, intolerances, sensitivities can feel like a rain cloud that follows you around everywhere you go – especially on food-centric holidays. For anyone looking for extra support around navigating Thanksgiving with IBS (or other gut issues), this Thanksgiving survival guide is for you!
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Thanksgiving with IBS Survival Guide: 11 Dietitian Tips for Enjoying Your Thanksgiving Feast
- Do Your Research
- Plan In Advance
- Bring What You Need
- Confide in Confidantes
- Prioritize Sleep
- Relax Your Nervous System
- Wear Comfortable Clothes
- Set & Enforce Your Boundaries
- Don’t Bank Calories
- Don’t Skip Meals
- Make Balanced Choices
Do Your Research
Most people will likely know at least a few weeks in advance where they’ll be going for the annual feast and who’s hosting. If that’s the case for you, I highly recommend reaching out to the host to inquire about the menu in advance, so you’ll know which options are going to be “you-friendly” – and which ones likely aren’t.
I also highly recommend keeping an IBS food diary which can help you to get crystal-clear on which foods work and don’t work for your body (since no two people are going to have the same response to the same list of foods).
- If you don’t yet have an IBS food diary, and you prefer paperback versus digital, feel free to check out the one below, which happens to have been recently written, designed and published by Yours Truly. 😉
Lastly, it might be helpful to find out what time frame each course will be served, which will allow you to take informed action by planning ahead – so you aren’t winging it!
Plan In Advance
“Knowledge is only potential power. It becomes power only when, and if, it is organized into definite plans of action, and directed to a definite end.”
— Napoleon Hill
Thanksgiving and IBS don’t need to be mutually exclusive!
If you’ve done your research, you’ll likely have a general idea of what will be served at your Thanksgiving Day event. And if you’ve done some food logging via an IBS food diary (and possibly some functional nutrition testing alongside a functional dietitian-nutritionist), you’ll also likely have a much better idea of which foods work best for your body.
Now, YOU get to decide what you’ll do with that information!
- For example: if you happen to know what time people will be serving apps, you could make sure that at least some of the apps are you-friendly (and if not, bring something that is!) so you aren’t starving by the time the main course is served.
Bring What You Need
“If you are struggling with IBS and have diet restrictions, I often recommend eating some of your ‘safe’ foods before you go to a celebration. This helps limit exposure to problematic foods. When attending a Thanksgiving meal at someone else’s house, you can offer to bring some food that you know your body handles well,” states my colleague, Amy Archer RDN, CLT.
- For example, if you find out in advance that someone is going to be making mashed potatoes with lots of garlic and/or milk, and your body can’t handle those particular ingredients, you can be proactive by bringing side of “you-friendly” mashed potatoes, or a baked potato, or even a modified alternative such as cauliflower mash, so you don’t have to sit there at the table feeling FOMO while everyone else is enjoying mashed potatoes.
- Or if there aren’t any you-friendly desserts on the menu, fill in the gap by bringing a dessert you know you’ll be able to enjoy (such as this paleo + low FODMAP pumpkin pie, or my mom’s gluten-free + dairy-free apple crisp) which may be less likely to come with a cascade of unwanted side-effects.
I also always encourage my clients to pack any particular functional foods (such as probiotic sauerkraut) and supplements (like digestive enzymes or anything else you would normally take) to help you digest the rich foods with more ease and less discomfort.
Confide in Confidantes
While not everyone gets the same level of support at family events, usually there are at least one or two people you can reach out to in advance! If that’s the case, I encourage you to reach out to someone you trust who will be at your Thanksgiving event, to fill them in on what you’ve been going through.
In addition to providing some emotional support and insights, they may also help advocate for you if any uncomfortable confrontations or conversations come up around food that you’d rather not engage in.
Did you know that the duration and quality of sleep is directly correlated with unwanted symptoms of IBS (like pain)? (1)
Plan to go to bed at a reasonable hour the night before Thanksgiving, even if you have plans to go out with friends! A good night’s rest can make all the difference in how you feel on Thanksgiving day.
Sleep is also known to impact stress, which is intimately involved in gut health.
Relax Your Nervous System
Speaking of stress, it’s likely not the first time you’ve heard that a stressed-out nervous system (aka spending too much time in “fight or flight”) can wreak havoc on gut health. (2)
If you’re prone to anxiety or stress of any kind (which is actually a normal part of being human), you may want to carve out some time for a stress-reducing activity the morning of Thanksgiving or even leading up to it. This could be anything, depending on what works best for you!
A few examples of how you can relax your nervous system and reduce the IBS-triggering “fight or flight” stress response include, but are not limited to:
- Going for a walk (weather-permitting)
- Trying out a meditation app, such as Nerva
- Doing a yoga class
- Phoning a friend
- Meeting with your therapist
- Booking a Jikiden Reiki session or a massage (the week leading up to Thanksgiving)
- Trying out EFT tapping
When it comes to stress management, some is always better than none and you can’t go wrong!
Wear Comfortable Clothes
I don’t know about you, but I certainly would not want to be wearing tight clothes on Thanksgiving – even now that I don’t have to deal with bloating anymore. (#IBSrecovery)
Wearing clothes that you feel confident and comfortable in can make all the difference in how present you can be on Thanksgiving day and any day for that matter. Find something stylish that is loose-fitting and feels flattering, so you can be more confident and present with family and friends!
Set & Enforce Boundaries
Deciding on and enforcing your own parameters around which foods you’re going to indulge in and what isn’t worth it, as well as which conversations you’ll choose to engage in and what you’d rather just not talk about on your Thanksgiving day, will go a long way!
You get to decide all of this.
- If someone gets insulted that you don’t want any of their green bean casserole or something else, that is their problem. It’s totally not your responsibility to suffer through a particular dish just to appease someone else! You aren’t responsible for how anyone else reacts to your food choices.
- You also don’t owe anyone explanations or justification around what you’re eating or not eating.
A member of my Complete Gut Repair Roadmap Fall 2022 group program cohort recently suggested sending out an email to people in advance to give them a heads-up you’re navigating some health issues impacted by food, won’t be eating “all the things” if some stuff makes you sick, & won’t be engaging in these conversations on Thanksgiving Day.
Setting boundaries around your food choices and the conversations about your food choices is not optional on a gut-healing journey, if you ask me!
Don’t Bank Calories
I also recommend not trying to bank your calories for the “big meal”. While that isn’t good for anyone (especially from a blood sugar standpoint), banking calories is especially harmful for those of us with gut issues, since large volumes of food create an unnecessary burden on the gut.
Long story short: we max out on the amount of digestive secretions we can produce at any given time. Don’t overload your gut with more than what it can handle!
Don’t Skip Meals
“Continue to eat your regular meals and snacks even if you’re planning to have a bigger dinner. Eating smaller portions more frequently can help prevent IBS symptoms,” recommends intuitive eating dietitian Jill Merkel, MS, RD, CSSD.
Sticking to routines makes it easier to self-regulate and make more balanced food choices.
Make Balanced Food Choices
One thing I love about Thanksgiving as a dietitian is how easy it is to get something from every food group! Following a modified version of the “MyPlate” can go a long way.
For example, filling ~1/3 of your plate with protein (such as turkey), 1/3 with starch (carbs) such as potatoes/stuffing, and 1/3 veggies (i.e. green beans, brussels, turnips or anything else you happen to love & have access to) is great not just for blood sugar and satiety but also because your gut microbes love diversity!
If you’d like to learn more about navigating Thanksgiving with IBS, you may want to check out the following resources:
- 5 Tips for Navigating Holidays with IBS
- How to make empowered choices and maintain momentum through the holiday season (Podcast)
- The IBS Food Diary: A 3-Month Inspirational & Empowering Clinical Tool and Resource for Symptom Clarity, Gut Repair, & IBS Relief
Navigating Thanksgiving with IBS is no picnic but it’s totally figureoutable, if you do the work and plan in advance!
Leaning on loved ones and leveraging the knowledge and resources available to you can and will go a long way. It’s a combination of deciding and committing to following through with choices that will be in your best interest such as meal planning, lifestyle modification, and boundary-setting, based on where you’re at and what you need most.
Cheers to kicking off a happier, healthier holiday season. You deserve it!
XO – Jenna