• Photo for Thanksgiving Dinner—Go Ahead, Gobble It Up
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

Thanksgiving Dinner—Go Ahead, Gobble It Up

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Let’s be honest. Thanksgiving is all about the food (and being thankful, of course). It’s hard to envision the holiday without a plate covered with traditional trimmings. Granted, there are a few people that admirably stick to roasted turkey and steamed green beans, then somehow manage to muster up the willpower to pass on stuffing, gravy, and mashed potatoes—not to mention dessert. If you’re one of those folks, kudos to you! But for the rest of us, there’s no need to make apologies for enjoying a taste of the foods we only eat once a year. Actually, research shows that being a little “imperfect” when it comes to diet is a positive. University of North Florida research found that living by a “90-10” rule—90 percent of the time following a stellar diet, with 10 percent left for dietary wiggle room—leads to better success at following a healthy diet.

Of course, that’s not carte blanche throw your health out of the window—even at Thanksgiving. Ten percent isn’t much, but it’s enough to allow you a few indulgences. A few years ago, the National Institutes of Health corrected the popular, but incorrect, belief that most people gain five to 10 pounds during the holiday season (Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day)...the good news is that it’s more like one pound. However, a pound’s a pound—and if you never lose that pound and pack a fresh one on every holiday season, you’ll be in elastic-waist pants full-time before you know it. So while you have this dietitian’s permission to enjoy the main meal, take care to let the decadence stop at the table, and not trickle over into the following days (sorry, that means leftovers). Also, it’s smart to choose wisely and cut caloric corners in a few easy spots. For example, rather than filling up on high-calorie drinks and appetizers before dinner, nibble and imbibe lightly in anticipation of the plethora of delicious foods you know await. Adding time to your workouts is also a good way to make sure you get through the holiday season without a few extra rolls (not the kind on your plate).

Even as decadent as Thanksgiving can be, many of the stars of the meal are actually inherently healthy. If you have some control over the menu (or want to offer to lend the host a hand) you can choose to keep the healthy foods healthy, and save your splurge for dessert. Otherwise, take inspiration from your feast to build healthy meals from traditional Thanksgiving-inspired foods all year round.

Cravin’ the Cranberries
Not crushed globes suspended in suspicious-looking jelly (or corrugated can-shaped slices)—we’re talking real fresh-from-the-produce-section fruit. Cranberries are chock full of polyphenol antioxidants and vitamin C. Even better, that tart little berry rates sixth on the United States Department of Agriculture’s list of 20 high antioxidant sources of foods. Sure, you can slather your turkey with sugary sauce, but if you want to up the antioxidant ante and cut back on the sweet, spring for a fresh bag ‘o berries and make your own version of cranberries the healthy way. Just dump two cups of cranberries in a dish with two chopped apples—don’t even stop to peel them—and half a cup of sugar, then bake at 350 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes. Your guests (or your host) will be so impressed.

Make It Sweet
What’s a Thanksgiving meal without smooth and creamy potatoes? Whether you like them sweet and candied or traditionally mashed—it’s likely that the Thanksgiving version will be filled with artery-clogging saturated fat from butter and cream, or that the sweet potatoes, encrusted with nuts, brown sugar or marshmallows will more closely resemble dessert than a side. Nutritionally speaking, in naked form, sweet potatoes pack more nutrition than a regular white potato because they are loaded with fiber, beta carotene, vitamin C and have a lower glycemic index than regular white potatoes (and diets that are filled with high-glycemic index foods are linked to increased risk of developing diabetes). If you’re feeling generous, offer to bring the sweet potatoes and whip them up with just a little fat-free half-and-half, trans-fat-free spread and a touch of brown sugar and cinnamon.

Go Nuts
There are plenty of headlines that point to nuts as a dietary asset. Researchers at Loma Linda University found that eating an average of 2.4 ounces of nuts a day can lower total cholesterol by 5.1 percent and LDL (bad) cholesterol by 7.4 percent. And it gets even better because the results of the study found similar heart healthy benefits with many popular nuts—walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamias, and pistachios. Of course, if you’re planning to get your nuts via pecan pie, you really aren’t doing yourself any favors, what with the butter and sugar that comes along with it. But you can set out (or offer to bring) mixed nuts for pre-dinner noshing. Not only will you be doing a little good for your heart, you’ll also save yourself from high fat hors d’ oeuvres, quelling hunger with something healthy.

Join the Greens Party
Depending on where you live, greens may be a part of your meal. And if they’re not, they should be. Leafy green vegetables (like spinach, mustard greens and kale, for example) are natural sources of folate—which research shows can help stave off death from heart failure. Of course, cooking them with pork fat and loads of salt as is the tradition in some parts of the country, sets back the health factor. Still, if you see them on the buffet, go ahead and give them a try—even at their worst, they are still often some of the healthiest choices. And while you’re munching, think of how you could incorporate greens into your round-the-year meals. They’re great (and easy) chopped into soups, or sautéed with a little olive oil, lean ham and a pinch of salt plus a splash of vinegar.

Go for the Smashing Pumpkins
At Thanksgiving, pumpkins almost always show up in the pie—so go ahead and help yourself. Compared to other choices on the desert buffet, it’s often one of the healthiest. Plus, you’ll be getting a good dose of beta carotene (along with plenty of fat to help you absorb it!). After Thanksgiving, for a healthier way to do pumpkin, stock up on cans of pure pumpkin puree and add a couple tablespoons to oatmeal, pancakes and muffins when you’re looking to cut down on the fat (pumpkin puree can be used as an oil replacement) and pump up the vitamins.

Give ‘Em the Bird
Turkey gives you a twofer: not only can it provide a satisfying source of lean protein (as long as you skip the gravy and remove the skin) it can help you settle into sleep, too. Many people anticipate a big fat nap to follow the big fat Thanksgiving meal, compliments of the turkey. Tryptophan, an amino acid that is essential for production of serotonin (which promotes relaxation) is found in turkey as well as other protein foods like milk, almonds and hummus. But as you’ve no doubt noted post-Thanksgiving, tryptophan is even more effective at bringing on sleep when paired with complex carbohydrates. Since adequate sleep is critical for a handful of health-related issues like weight and blood sugar control, take a cue from Thanksgiving, and pair up healthy complex carbs (like whole grain cereal or crackers) with tryptophan-rich protein foods for a sleepy-time snack.

After the plates have been cleared and dessert has been enjoyed—jump right back into your regular, healthy habits with no regrets about the Thanksgiving meal you enjoyed. By taking a spurge within the context of a healthy diet, you can be sure that jolly round man that appears in December isn’t you!