How To Eat Healthy On Thanksgiving, According To A Nutritionist
By: Julie Mancuso, Registered Nutritionist, Owner of JM Nutrition
In this post:
How to eat healthy on Thanksgiving
Traditional Thanksgiving foods rated according to their nutritional value
For most traditional North American families, Thanksgiving means large family get togethers accompanied by a cornucopia of delicious food over the course of an autumn long weekend.
For many of us, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays where we often tend to sweep self-restraint to the side and indulge in all their culinary glory that the Thanksgiving dinner table has to offer.
Can you eat healthy on Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Foods Nutritional Rating
But what if you find yourself with the daunting task of trying to eat healthy on Thanksgiving?
Can it be done?
What foods should you eat during a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to avoid sabotaging those nutrition, health and wellness goals you work so hard to maintain throughout the year?
Traditional Thanksgiving Foods Nutritional Value Scale
To lend a helping hand in this endeavour, I simplified things by analyzing various traditional Thanksgiving dinner table offerings and rated them from 1 to 4 according to this simple scale:
1-star: very unhealthy
2-star: somewhat healthy
3-star: mostly healthy
4-star: very healthy
Thanksgiving Foods Nutritional Rating
1. Turkey with stuffing
Roasted turkey, the centrepiece of the Thanksgiving table, has many nutritional benefits.
For starters, turkey is a healthy and lean source of protein—the all-important macronutrient that’s responsible for the building and repair of tissues.
In addition, protein keeps you full for longer, helping to stave off hunger. This is very important for people who are looking to lose weight or those who are prone to overeating.
For these and other reasons, protein is an essential component of a healthy, wholesome diet. It’s great for everyone: from your growing child to your beloved muscle-bound gym rat.
Without its skin, turkey is considered a lean meat, meaning it is low in fat. Although a well-known fact, it’s also important to keep in mind that the white meat contains less fat than the dark.
Turkey also contains tryptophan, iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorous and B Vitamins—all important components of health and vitality.
A downside of the Thanksgiving turkey dinner is that it can be on the high side in sodium, so don’t overeat.
And then there is the stuffing which, save for the generally healthy herbs, often includes processed, nutrient-drained bread. Some people even add processed meats to the mix, making the concoction more tasty but also more unhealthy.
So should turkey end up on your dinner plate if you’re looking to eat healthy on Thanksgiving?
Yes, its benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, provided you omit the stuffing or have only a spoonful.
Nutritional rating: 4 stars, (if you don’t eat the stuffing), 3 (if you do)
High in Vitamin A, C, E and B6, squash can surely be considered one of the vegetable superheroes.
Additionally, because it is abundant in fibre, potassium and riboflavin, it should be eaten regularly, not just during Thanksgiving.
Furthermore, squash is a good weight loss food because it is low in carbs and calories.
Squash, however, can lower blood pressure, so avoid if you are afflicted with hypotension.
Moreover, yellow summer squash has a higher oxalate content. As such, it should be avoided by those who are on a low-oxalate kidney stones diet plan.
Because of its high nutritional value, squash is a traditional Thanksgiving food staple that you can eat virtually without restraint. The only exception is mentioned above.
In addition, spaghetti squash is a great weight loss food, that can be added to a salad or mashed and eaten along side your potatoes. It can also be used as a lower-calorie substitute for mashed potatoes themselves.
Nutritional rating: 4 stars
3. Mashed potatoes
On their own, potatoes contain some fibre, potassium, Vitamin C and B6.
The potato peel also contains folate–instrumental in the making of red and white blood cells. This is especially important for infants and children as they grow, as well as women during pregnancy.
Potatoes, on the other hand, pack high levels of carbohydrates. As such, they are not an ideal food for weight loss.
Potatoes also have a high glycemic index. Upon ingestion, the body digests potatoes rapidly, causing a spike in blood sugar.
Furthermore, once milk and butter find their way into the mix, the caloric load is increased and saturated fat surges. Large quantities of milk and butter can also wreak havoc on your cholesterol levels.
For these reasons keep an eye on the portion size of your mashed potatoes to avoid overeating.
To reduce the caloric load of mashed potatoes, you can mix them with squash.
And, if you’re looking for an alternative that doesn’t require the addition of milk and butter, try sweet potatoes. This delicious spud can easily stand on its own, making it the healthier option overall.
So should you eat potatoes if you want to eat healthy on Thanksgiving?
If you feel that no traditional Thanksgiving dinner is complete without mashed potatoes, then consider a couple of tablespoons and no more. Instead, fill up the plate with healthier options.
Nutritional rating: 2.5 stars
No one consumes gravy for its nutritional benefits. And there is a very good reason for that: it has none.
Gravy is simply eaten to make food taste better. No more, no less.
For many gravy is to potatoes what icing is to cake: it’s what makes it complete.
But if you’re health-conscious or watching your waistline, be mindful that gravy comprises meat juices and fat drippings, often thickened with flour or corn starch.
Asa result, gravy may be a savoury addition to the Thanksgiving dinner, but it is an unhealthy one.
With health and nutrition coming to the forefront in recent years, people have begun altering traditional recipes with more healthy ingredients, sacrificing little in the taste department.
Finding a more healthy gravy recipe is no doubt possible. But if you don’t feel motivated to spend some time browsing the internet for recipes, then I suggest you stay away from gravy altogether.
Nutritional rating: 1 star
5. Cranberry sauce
Cranberries in their various forms have been known to help urinary tract infections and bring about anti-oxidation.
They also contain fibre, vitamin C and reasonably little fat. For these reasons alone they have been deemed a health food.
More on the health benefits of cranberries
Dried cranberries come with high levels of fructose—a sugar which, in high amounts, can be detrimental to your health.
According to Harvard Health, higher intakes of fructose are associated with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
Harvard Health also mentions that an “effect of high fructose intake is insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.” Insulin and insulin resistance are also major contributing factors to weight gain and obesity, according to Dr. Jason Fung, Obesity Code.
Furthermore, according to Medical News Today, “cranberry products may also lead to higher excretion of oxalate in urine”, promoting kidney stones in some.
What about cranberry sauce?
While retaining some of the health benefits of the cranberry in its original form, the commercial cranberry sauce packs on more calories, sugar and fat.
Homemade sauce—one that is more conducive to your health—can be made, allowing you have control over the ingredients that go in it.
Although the cranberries in the cranberry sauce have nutritional benefits, they are effectively negated by unhealthy ingredients, particularly sugar.
Although not all cranberry sauces are created equally, it’s best to give them a pass and move onto something decidedly healthy, if your goal is to eat healthy on Thanksgiving.
Nutritional rating: 2 stars
Much has been written on the health benefits of carrots, so there’s not much light that can be shed on the subject. I’ll just underscore some of the main benefits.
Carrots carry an abundant amount of Vitamin A. This powerful vitamin boosts immunity, protects eyesight, helps the skin, assists in building strong bones, and so on.
Carrots also contain Vitamins K and C in considerable amounts, which only help to solidify its reputation as a health food.
The only downside is that the overconsumption of Vitamin A can be toxic. But for this to happen, a person would have to consume an inordinate amount of carrots and most likely over a period of time.
Otherwise, carrots are an incredibly healthy food, unless, of course, you drench them in some thick, fattening gravy.
For more information and a great infographic listing the health benefits related to carrots and carrot juice, take a look at this post from Dr. Axe.
Nutritional rating: 4 stars
7. Green beans
The health benefits of green beans are undisputed.
Green beans are low in calories and high in fibre—the latter being instrumental in digestive health.
In addition, they contain several vitamins (C, K, A and B6) and minerals (calcium, potassium and iron, to name a few), forming a powerful line of defence against all sorts of ailments.
Because raw green beans contain lectins, eating them in this form may be hard on the digestive system, potentially leading to toxicity.
Boiling or cooking them at 212℉ or 100℃ inactivates most of the lectins, according to Healthline.
As long you don’t eat them raw and sprinkle them with a handful of salt or bathe them in a thick sauce, green beans are a healthy Thanksgiving food.
Nutritional rating: 4 stars
8. Dinner rolls
The nutritional value of dinner rolls is virtually non-existent. Although nutritional content varies, dinner rolls can contain fractional amounts of potassium, protein and dietary fibre. But not much else.
When you roll out these babies on the Thanksgiving table, be mindful that each small roll accounts for about a tenth of daily intake of carbohydrates for an average adult.
The percentage rises rapidly if you’re on a weight loss program, where carbohydrates portions have been reduced.
Dinner rolls also contain noticeable sodium, an ingredient whose consumption most of us need to watch in order not to exceed the daily recommended intake.
For more information on bread rolls and calories, carbs and sodium, read this brief post from Livestrong.com.
Should dinner rolls form a part of your meal if you’re trying to eat healthy on Thanksgiving?
If you must have one, have only one. Otherwise, give them a pass and opt for something healthier.
Nutritional rating: 2.5 stars
First let’s look at the good.
Without a doubt, ham is a great source of protein.
It also contains Vitamin B6, as well as riboflavin, thiamine and niacin—nutrients vital for our bodies.
Now the bad.
Unfortunately, ‘holiday ham’ is filled with preservatives (nitrates). According to Mayo Clinic “sodium nitrate may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease.
In addition, there is some link between nitrates and some cancers.
Keep in mind, however, that some nitrates are healthy, so avoiding all nitrate-rich foods isn’t advisable.
In addition to nitrates, ham is loaded with sodium and brims with fat and cholesterol.
Is ham a healthy Thanksgiving food?
Far from it.
Omit it or consume a small amount during your Thanksgiving dinner, if health is your priority.
Nutritional rating: 1.5 stars
10. Pumpkin pie, apple pie
The pumpkin itself
The pumpkin itself is a healthy food.
It contains fibre, which slows the digestion of food, making you feel full for longer—much like other fibre-rich foods. That’s a noteworthy benefit especially for those who often feel hungry and feel the need to snack.
Additionally, pumpkins contain beta carotene, a substance converted to Vitamin A in the body. The benefits of Vitamin A were mentioned earlier.
Eating a pumpkin in its natural state does not equate to eating pumpkin pie though.
Pumpkin in its pie form calls for flour, sugar, butter and/or cream to be added, significantly increasing the saturated fat and calorie count.
Today some of these unhealthy ingredients can replaced with healthier alternatives, making the pumpkin pie more health-friendly. But be sure to do so if you want to eat healthy on Thanksgiving.
The story is much the same with the other dessert staple, the apple pie.
Unless you’re willing to modify these traditional pies and replace some of the unhealthy ingredients with healthier ones, then it’s best to consume only very small portions, or better yet, not at all.
Nutritional rating: 1.5 stars, traditional pumpkin pie
There you have it. I donned the lab coat, whipped out the nutrition microscope and with a carefully-trained nutritionist eye, analyzed the traditional Thanksgiving dinner foods.
It is my hope that these findings serve as a helpful guideline for those of you want to eat healthy on Thanksgiving.
Julie Mancuso is a registered nutritionist and owner of JM Nutrition, who has been counselling clients for over 15 years. Julie’s personalized approach has helped thousands reach their health, wellness and nutrition goals.
Julie regularly lends her expertise to a variety of health publications such as Livestrong, Business Insider, Food Network, MyFitnessPal, Toronto Star, Elle Magazine and many more. For more information, see In The Press.
Julie’s blog was named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2020 by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe to both her newsletter and blog.