Do the words “Thanksgiving” and “indulgences” seemingly go hand-in-hand in your mind? Although it’s easy to demonize the holiday with a cornucopia of goodies, there’s actually a ton of nutritional benefits on that table.
Natalie Stephens, a dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, swears there are “so many benefits in this one meal!” Here’s the lowdown on all those foods and why you should feel good about what you’re putting on your plate if you portion wisely and serve ‘em up right.
Get a jump start on those New Year’s resolutions with our 6 skinny Thanksgiving recipes, including squash cupcakes and skinny mashed potatoes!
The health benefits of turkey
If you want to relax and unwind on Thanksgiving, turkey is the ticket. It contains the amino acid tryptophan, which promotes sleep by assisting in the production of serotonin and melatonin, says Stephens. In combination with the other carbs on the table, it’s a nice way to unwind.
“Turkey also has key B-vitamins, and is a lean source of protein for maintaining your muscles,” she explains. To keep it healthy, roast in the oven to 165 degrees, using a food thermometer so you don’t overcook. Use just a drizzle of gravy and only eat around 3-4 ounces — about the size of a deck of cards.
Good for you green beans
This veggie staple is one of the lowest calorie dishes among the Thanksgiving bunch. “It’s a source of fiber, which can help fill your belly and ward off weight gain,” says Stephens.
Although the casserole version is common on Turkey Day, a healthier alternative is blanching your beans in low-sodium chicken broth before sprinkling with slivered almonds. “I call this ‘green beans almandine,’” Stephens says. “Fancy, right?”
Mighty antioxidants protect against cell damage, and cranberries contain a lot of ‘em. “They’re an excellent source of vitamin C, and also contain phytonutrients such as catechins, quinic acid, and anthocyanin,” Stephens says. “These help fight inflammation, free radicals,” and can even keep cancer cells from rapidly developing.
On top of that, you get an ample dose of fiber for just a few calories. “Go beyond the can of cran-jelly and actually buy a bag,” says Stephens. “Simmer them with grapes and a tablespoon of sugar. You could add a little fresh orange zest and a squeeze of the oranges juice.” As the berries pop, the natural pectin releases and causes a thickening effect as the sauce cools into a yummy side dish.
Our slow cooker cranberry sauce recipe uses a fresh bag of these healthy berries. Give it a try this Thanksgiving — your guests will love it!
Skinny sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes seem indulgent, but this starchy vegetable is actually a great source of fiber for gut health and key antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamin A for youthful vision and skin — and you really don’t need to load the side with extras like brown sugar and marshmallows. Remember: it’s a side, not dessert.
“It really does taste sweet all on its own,” Stephens says. “However, some trendy recipes are pushing the potato into the savory side by adding sautéed sage leaves and strong cheeses like Asiago.” For those who associate this comfort food with ample sweetness, just simple roasting will do.
Show some love for white potatoes
White potatoes have gotten bad publicity recently, especially when experts try to stack this starch up against their sweeter cousin. However, a basic potato can definitely be a versatile fixture in a healthy diet.
“They provide complex carbohydrates, fiber if you’re eating the skins, and they’re also a source of vitamin C,” says Stephens. “Potatoes are even a better source of potassium than bananas!” Not bad, eh?
It’s what you do with the potato that’s important. Traditional recipes for loaded skins or mashes potatoes typically add lots of fat — like butter, sour cream, bacon, and cheese. A healthier alternative? Add Greek yogurt in place of sour cream to top or blend. “No one will ever know they’re eating less fat and getting more protein,” says Stephens.
The same antioxidant that gives pumpkin its rich orange color is the one that provides its biggest benefit, says Stephens. “Pumpkin is a great beta-carotene source,” she explains. “The orange flesh, similar to sweet potato, contains that cancer-fighting nutrient.
Pumpkin is also a good source of fiber and vitamin C.” (Forget the supplement for immunity, right?) While you can enjoy a slice of pie, Stephens also suggests a side dish of roasted and sautéed pumpkin — which is more nutritious than the sugary dessert standard, but just as festive.
The antioxidant power of corn
Don’t be so hard on fiber-filled corn, y’all. “Here’s another veggie that’s generally in the doghouse, but can work itself into a healthy spot on the table,” says Stephens, who notes that cooking corn actually increases the antioxidant power.
“Corn also contains zeaxanthin and lutein ,which are phytonutrients that work on eye health, as well as fighting free radicals in the body.” Keep in mind that a quarter-cup of corn is 150 calories. It’s easy to exceed that, so watch your portions and try not to go overboard.
While they’re great benefits in your Thanksgiving meal, Stephens says we shouldn’t forget that they’re carb-heavy. “Especially for diabetic patients, to keep blood sugars in check, aim for a half-cup serving of the side dishes and a smaller slice of pie,” she says. “I’d encourage some of the lower-carb veggie side dishes, as well.
You can also add trendier veggies to your table. Roasted Brussels sprouts with apples and apple cider vinegar, or broccoli with onion and garlic powder are also warm, delicious, and healthy for the holiday.
“There’s always time to create new family traditions at the table,” Stephens says. “Start trends and eat foods that promote longer, healthier lives in the people who matter most to us.” Yes, they’re probably around that Thanksgiving dinner table.
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