Nutritionist Analyzes Thanksgiving Dinner Foods
By: Julie Mancuso, B.A., R.H.N., JM Nutrition
For most traditional North American families, Thanksgiving means large family get togethers and a cornucopia of mouth-watering food. It’s why we often tend to sweep self-restraint to the side and indulge in all their culinary glory over those few fall days.
But what if you find yourself with the daunting task of trying to eat healthy during the Thanksgiving weekend?
Can it be done?
What should you eat during the Thanksgiving weekend to avoid sabotaging those healthy eating habits you work so hard to maintain throughout the year?
Well, I’ve got you covered because I analyzed the traditional Thanksgiving dinner table offerings and rated them from 1 to 4 according to this scale:
1-star: very unhealthy
2-star: somewhat healthy
3-star: mostly healthy
4-star: very healthy
How healthy are Thanksgiving foods?
Turkey with stuffing
The roasted turkey, the centrepiece of the Thanksgiving table, brings with it many health benefits.
Turkey is a healthy source of protein—the all-important macronutrient. 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’s 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.
Beware: turkey 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.
Rating: 4 stars, (3.5 stars, if your choice is dark meat).
High in Vitamin A, C, E and B6, squash is one of the vegetable superheroes. Being abundant in fibre and potassium it should be enjoyed regularly, not just during Thanksgiving.
Squash, however, can lower blood pressure, so avoid if you are afflicted with hypotension.
Tip: Spaghetti squash is a great weight loss food, which 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.
For more information read about Dr. Mercola’s take on squash.
Rating: 4 stars
Potatoes on their own contain some fibre, potassium, Vitamin C and B6. This is all well and good, on the one hand.
On the other hand, potatoes pack high levels of carbohydrates and have a high glycemic index. Upon ingestion, the body digests potatoes rapidly, causing a spike in blood sugar.
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.
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.
Rating: 2.5 stars
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.
Now that doesn’t sound healthy, does it?
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.
Rating: 1 star
Is cranberry sauce good for you?
Let’s take a look.
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.
But it’s not all roses in cranberry land.
Dried cranberries come with high levels of fructose—a sugar which, in high amounts, can be detrimental to your health. According to Harvard Health, an “effect of high fructose intake is insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.”
While retaining some, though not all, health benefits of the cranberry in its original, fresh state, 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.
So is it completely unhealthy? No. But it definitely isn’t a super health food either. If your goal is to eat healthier during the Thanksgiving weekend, then it’s best to give this sauce a pass and move onto something decidedly healthy.
Rating: 2 stars
Much has been written on the health benefits of carrots, so there’s not much light I can shed on the subject. I’ll just underscore some of the main points.
Carrots carry Vitamin A in abundance. 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 relatively ample amounts, which only help to solidify its reputation as a health food.
Just refrain from dripping some thick, fatty gravy all over this wonderful vegetable, and negate all the good it does on its own.
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.
Rating: 4 stars
The health benefits of green beans remain undisputed.
Green beans are low in calories and high in fibre—the latter being instrumental in digestive health.
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.
As long you don’t sprinkle them with a handful of salt or bathe them in a thick sauce, green beans are bound to do the body some good, and not just in the taste department.
Rating: 4 stars
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—as a simple guideline. 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.
Rating: 2.5 stars
First let’s look at the good.
Without a doubt, ham is a great protein source. It 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), which can be detrimental to our health. Keep in mind, however, that some nitrates are healthy, so avoiding all nitrate-rich foods isn’t advisable.
To discover more about nitrates take a look at this article from Healthline.
And last is the ugly.
In addition to nitrates, ham is loaded with sodium, brimming with fat and high in cholesterol. I’d be very careful in consuming anything but a small amount of ham during your Thanksgiving dinner, if blood pressure, heart condition or weight maintenance are a concern.
Rating: 2 stars
Pumpkin or apple pie
And now the traditional Thanksgiving desserts: the pumpkin or apple pies.
The pumpkin itself is a healthy food. Being high in fibre, it 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, beta carotene, a substance converted to Vitamin A in the body, is found in substantial amounts in pumpkins. The benefits of Vitamin A have been 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.
Through some nutrition wizardry, these unhealthy ingredients can be reduced or replaced with alternatives, making the pumpkin pie more health-friendly.
The story is much the same with the other dessert staple, the apple pie. And unless you’re willing to modify these traditional Thanksgiving 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.
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 who want to eat healthy during this festive time.
Julie Mancuso is a registered holistic Toronto nutritionist who has been counseling clients for over 15 years. Julie’s personalized approach has helped thousands reach their health, wellness and nutrition goals.
Julie’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2018 by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe to both her newsletter and blog.