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How to Eat Healthy This Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Romi and I always enjoy slowing down and spending time with our family and good friends, preparing and eating delicious meals. Most of all, we enjoy giving thanks. Not only does that make the holiday more enjoyable, but a Harvard Medical School acknowledges that giving thanks and expressing gratitude makes you a happier and healthier person.1

But there’s a dark side to the holiday. According to the Calorie Control Council (yes, that’s a real thing), the average American will consume a sickening amount of calories on Thanksgiving. A single cup of mashed potatoes contains 238 calories and 8 grams of fat. A slice of that scrumptious pecan pie piles on another 456 calories and 21 grams of fat. Even a cup of seemingly healthy green bean casserole contains 8 grams of fat.2 According to the Calorie Control Council’s estimates, all these indulgences add up to 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving! And that’s just the start. For most of us, one day of feasting turns into a long weekend of indulgences that then extends through the end of the year. Thanksgiving is the gateway holiday for sweet treats and excessive alcohol at holiday parties, get-togethers, Christmas, and right through New Year’s Eve.

The result is that on Thanksgiving and the weeks that follow, many of us eat far more than what we need or what’s healthy. The US Government Dietary Guidelines recommend 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for adult men.3 So on Thanksgiving alone, people are eating about two-days’ worth of calories. Not surprising, every year at the holidays we pack on another pound.4 And as we all know, those pounds add up over the years and can be hard to lose.

This Thanksgiving, can you really have your cake and eat it, too? Yes. I’m going to tell you how you can tweak some of your favorite dishes so they don’t expand your waistline. They’ll still taste amazing and wow your family and friends. I’ve even got a delicious recipe for you that was the hit of our Thanksgiving dinner last year.

Swap Out the Dairy

While dairy can create rich creaminess and texture in many recipes, research is increasingly showing that we should reconsider the starring role of dairy in our diets. Dairy contains a cocktail of hormones, environmental pollutants, and antibiotic residues.5 It has been shown to increase the risk for breast cancer, prostate cancer and death from both of these cancers.6 For these, and other reasons, once you find out what’s actually in dairy, people should reconsider consumng it. 

The good news is that you can still get all the rich creaminess of mashed potatoes without the dairy. I found a New York Times recipe using heart-healthy olive oil that has all the creamy, satisfying mouthfeel of the traditional dish. Even though I made extra last year, there wasn’t one scoop left. This recipe is so popular that on the recipe website it has more than 700 five-star reviews. We love this dairy-free mashed potatoes recipe, and so will you. 

Cut the Cane Sugar

The love of sweet taste is programmed into our genes. In fact, the power of sweet taste to motivate behavior and consumption is profound, across all species.7 From and evolutionary perspective, that’s because foods that are naturally sweet like apples and dates are also full of healthy vitamins and minerals. But today people are eating more refined sugar than ever, increasing their risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, some cancers and early death. 

While sugar can give you a sweet treat, sugar overload spikes insulin and leave you feeling groggy and tired. This Thanksgiving try eliminating the sugar without sacrificing your favorite dishes, by using natural sugars, fruits and the ‘sweeter’ vegetables such as carrots, cranberries and more. These provide enough sweetness to satisfy your cravings for your favorite indulgences, while also offering fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well. 

If you think you’re getting all the added sweetness without the risks by using artificial sweeteners, think again. Artificial sweeteners come with their own set of problems, including increasing your risk for diabetes, dementia and obesity. That’s why it’s always better to rely on naturally sweet who foods to grace your holiday table. 

For inspiration, look no further than Cooking Light, which featured an entire article in 2016 on this topic, with great tips for using natural sugars instead of refined ones that can wreak havoc on your waistline.

And for that holiday staple—the sweet potato pie. Try this dairy free, low sugar sweet potato pie recipe that relies on the sweetness of yams and the creamy goodness of coconut milk. 

Cook a Healthy Breadless Stuffing

Bread is a staple across the world and has been found in ancient sites in Turkey and Europe that are over 9000 years old. There’s no doubt that whole grain-bread, prepared in an artisanal style, can be nourishing, but most bread today is unfortunately over processed and full of empty calories. That’s particularly true of the bread crumbs used in stuffing. In addition, stuffing made with bread crumbs will be off limits for anybody on a gluten-free diet.

You can have all the flavor of traditional stuffing without bread or dairy. Here’s a link to a vegan, gluten free, wild rice stuffing that is even more delicious than standard stuffing and a lot more nutritious.

This stuffing contains cranberries, onions, celery and wild rice. Olive oil and vegetable broth substitute for butter. Consider all the nutritive punch such a stuffing packs. Cranberries outrank most fruits and vegetables in terms of antioxidant power.8,9 They are high in vitamin C and fiber, which promotes healthy gut bacteria, as well as the ability to fight off urinary tract infections caused by e. coli bacteria.10 Onions, in the allium family, are famous for their health benefits, and offer vitamin C, anti-inflammatory sulphur compounds, flavonoids and phytochemicals.11 Toasted nuts add further nutritional benefits, as do fresh herbs.

Be sure to include sautéed mushrooms on your menu as well. They add a burst of flavor to the meal. And mushrooms are a powerhouse of good nutrition. Mushrooms contain high amounts of two potent antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione, according to a 2017 study from the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health. Porcini mushrooms contain the highest amount of these two antioxidants, but even white button mushrooms contain similar compounds.12

Are you hungry yet? Time to start planning that festive Thanksgiving meal—one that will nourish your body while you and your family spend time together nourishing the soul.

1Harvard Medical School. Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health Beat. [Report]

2Korn, M. How many calories Americans will eat on thanksgiving. ABC News. 11-2016. [Report]

3Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, Eighth Edition: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level. [Report]

4Balfanz, D. Avoiding holiday weight gain. Be Well Stanford. [Report]

5Fischer WJ, Schilter B, Tritscher AM, et al. Contaminants of milk and dairy products: Environmental contaminants. In: Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences.2nd ed. Academic Press, 2011 898–905. [Article]

6Chan JM, Giovannucci EL. Dairy products, calcium, and vitamin D and risk of prostate cancer. Epidemiol Rev. 2001;23(1):87-92. [Article]

7Beauchamp GK. Why do we like sweet taste: A bitter tale? Physiol Behav. 2016 Oct 1;164(Pt B):432-437 [Article]

8Jurikova T, Skrovankova S, Mlcek J et al. Bioactive compounds, antioxidant activity and biological effects of European Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos). Molecules. 2018 Dec 21;24(1). [Article]

9Davis JL. Cranberries: Year-round superfood. Web MD. [Report]

10Hisano M, Bruschini H, Nicodemo AC et al. Cranberries and lower urinary tract infection prevention Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2012;67(6):661-8. [Article]

11Szalay, J. Onions: Health Benefits, Health Risks & Nutrition Facts. Live Science. 2017. [Report]

12Swayne, M. Mushrooms are full of antioxidants that may have anti-aging potential. Penn State News 11/2017. [Report]

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