The Healthy Secrets of Thanksgiving Foods
Feast on This
Thanksgiving is one meal where no one wants to skimp. It’s our day to eat all the sides, go for seconds, and graze the dessert table. But think of it as a great opportunity to sneak in nutrients along with the decadence. “Thanksgiving is about traditions, so don’t think it’s appropriate to turn it into a big diet fest,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, coauthor of The Carb-Lover’s Diet ($10, amazon.com). “But it’s also about seasonal food, and many seasonal foods are very healthy and don’t need a lot of dressing up.” Whether you’re cooking the holiday meal or simply choosing from among the dishes, keep in mind these tips from Largeman-Roth and Cynthia Sass, RD, author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim ($16, amazon.com)—so you’ll get more out of your dinner than just the urge to take a nap.
Fresh Cranberry Sauce or Canned?
“Hands down, it’s fresh,” says Sass. Cranberries are a great source of vitamin C and have infection-fighting properties that help prevent urinary tract infections, ulcers, and gum disease. While canned sauce will offer some of those benefits, it’s typically made with high fructose corn syrup, so “with every bite you get a lot more sugar than you do cranberry,” says Sass. With homemade, you control how much sugar you put in, and “it will definitely be richer in vitamin C,” says Largeman-Roth, who keeps the dish simple by boiling cranberries on the stove with a small amount of orange juice or sugar. Sass recommends sweetening your homemade side with maple syrup and adding in antioxidant-rich seasonings such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and citrus zest.
Bread-Crumb Stuffing or Corn-Bread Stuffing?
Winner: Corn-Bread Stuffing
Says Sass, “A lot of people don’t realize that whole cornmeal is a whole grain, which is great, because whole grains, no matter what type, are linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.” Plus, whole grains have more fiber than refined grains (such as white bread) and help to control blood sugar and insulin levels, preventing spikes and crashes. The only catch: You have to make sure that the cornmeal is non-degerminated (check the package). “That means that the germ part of the grain, where a lot of the nutrients are, is left intact,” says Sass. Largeman-Roth, whose stuffing must appeal to both the meat-lovers and more health-conscious members of her family, makes cornbread stuffing with lean turkey sausage, which keeps it “relatively light.” To boost nutrient value, she recommends mixing in dried apricots or figs or roasted butternut squash.
Squash or Turnips?
Though turnips are slightly lower in calories, “they are not a particularly amazing source of any one thing,” says Largeman-Roth. On the other hand, the pigments that give winter squash (such as butternut and acorn) their characteristic bright color are associated with antioxidants that have been shown to protect vision and boost the immune system. “The beta-carotene in squash not only helps support immune cell function, but it helps to form the mucous linings of your nasal passages,” says Sass. And when that barrier is stronger, it is harder for any germs you breathe in to breach it and make you sick. Another point for squash: Though both turnips and squash are naturally fat-free, the sweetness of the latter enables you to cook it with fewer fattening add-ons such as butter or cream. Besides, says Largeman-Roth, “people tend not to be that excited about eating turnips.”
Mashed Potatoes or Sweet Potatoes?
“This one’s a toss-up,” says Sass. The sweet potatoes have the same beta-carotene that you find in squash, but white potatoes are good sources of potassium and have another little-known benefit. According to Largeman-Roth, they are a richer source of “resistant starch,” a carbohydrate that is not digested so it acts more like a fiber in your body, helping you feel fuller faster. Depending on the preparation, sweet and white potatoes can either be healthy choices or calorie-bombs. If you like sweet potatoes candied or topped with marshmallows, you’ll get an unnecessary helping of sugar; butter and cream, meanwhile, make mashed potatoes a fat-rich side. Instead, try recipes that call for minimal fat (leave on the skins for a fiber boost). For mashed potatoes, Sass likes using vegetable broth, organic skim milk, and flavorful elements such as garlic and rosemary. And with the sweet potatoes’ natural sweetness, they don’t need a lot of added sugar and calories, which Largeman-Roth says she prefers to “spend on dessert.”
Brussels Sprouts or Green Beans?
Winner: Brussels Sprouts
Green beans are a “decent source of protein,” says Largeman-Roth, but with that giant bird sitting in the middle of the table, few of us will be lacking in protein on the big day. Brussels sprouts, though, “are little baby cabbages, so they have all the benefits that other cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, offer,” says Largeman-Roth. Members of this food family contain compounds that fight the nation’s two top killers: cancer and heart disease. “The little bends and branches of our blood vessels are the areas most prone to inflammation and a buildup of cholesterol, and natural substances in cruciferous vegetables have been shown to protect them,” says Sass. “They also have detoxifiers that can help stop the spread of cancer cells and deactivate cancer-causing substances.” Roasted or pan-sautéd Brussels sprouts are really flavorful. And if you need to convince the kids (or other picky eaters) to dig in, why not try calling them “baby cabbages”? It sounds so cute!
Turkey or Ham?
Both are pretty lean meats, but turkey is much lower in sodium. “When you take in more sodium, you retain more water, which puts more pressure on your heart, and that raises your blood pressure,” explains Sass. “You don’t want to add more stress to your heart by having too much sodium.” (Especially since, with all the sides, a Thanksgiving dinner is already sodium-heavy. According to Largeman-Roth, the average Thanksgiving meal comes in at 2,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium—only 300 milligrams shy of the maximum recommended total daily amount for adults.) Just steer clear of trendy turkey preparations, such as deep-frying or brining, which add unnecessary amounts of fat and salt, respectively. For a simple and flavorful turkey, Largeman-Roth prefers a fresh (as opposed to frozen) bird: “All you have to do is roast it and you are going to have a delicious meal.”
Biscuits or Corn Bread?
While the beloved biscuit is a delectable little package of butter and fat, it’s often pretty small in size and tops out at around 100 calories. Meanwhile, a slice of corn bread can reach up to 200 calories (or more if you like to make it southern style with bacon drippings), which you don’t need on top of the heap of calories already on your plate. What corn bread has going for it, however, is a good amount of fiber, if it is made with whole, non-degerminated grain. If you do opt for corn bread, Largeman-Roth recommends keeping slices thin to help you (and your guests, too, if you’re the hostess) with portion size. And remember that whichever type of bread you choose, eating more than one serving or slathering on butter will just ramp up your caloric intake on a day when it’s likely already over-the-top.
Pumpkin Pie or Pecan Pie?
While heart-healthy pecans are a good source of fiber, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamin E, the typical pecan pie is made with a lot of sugar (in the form of pure corn syrup). A sweet slice of it will raise your blood sugar levels, making it more likely you will store calories from the pie as fat and your stomach will empty faster, leading to a crash (a.k.a., your traditional Thanksgiving nap). Your better choice is pumpkin pie, made with beta-carotene– and fiber-rich pumpkin puree combined with spices and milk. Swap in regular or low-fat milk for condensed, and you can lower the caloric content. And milk offers a little protein finish to the meal, which will help you feel fuller longer (so you won’t make a midnight snack out of leftovers) and help keep your blood sugar from spiking.
Red Wine or Champagne?
“Any booze in moderation has been shown to be beneficial to your health,” says Largeman-Roth. A small daily amount of alcohol (a 5-ounce glass of wine, say) can help thin your blood and make it less likely to clot. Champagne, like all wines, contains natural sugars, but it’s the lighter option, fizzing up at 90 calories a glass versus red wine’s 125. Red wine offers the advantage of resveratrol, an antioxidant that has been shown to lower the inflammation that can prematurely age cells, making it both heart-protective and anti-aging. So one glass of either has its advantages. Cheers!