For many people, the Thanksgiving feast is marked by overindulgence, with the goal being to eat, drink, and be merry; the downside is that gluttonous feeling that sets in shortly after. But that isn’t because the featured foods are inherently unhealthy. On the contrary, many are loaded with health-promoting nutrients. It’s what people add—fat, sugar, salt, and cream—that tips them into the less-healthy zone. After all, consuming these ingredients in excess can clog the arteries, raise blood pressure, and send blood sugar soaring.
Plus, the sheer number of dishes typically included can set the stage for overeating. “People think it’s the tryptophan from the turkey that makes them sleepy, but it’s the 4,000 calories you consumed in 30 minutes that puts you in that food coma,” says Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “It doesn’t have to be a gargantuan meal.”
Indeed, there are lots of ways you can maximize the meal’s nutritional value and enjoyment—without ending the day feeling overstuffed. Here’s how to navigate the mainstays of the meal.
Roasted turkey is loaded with protein, as well as potassium, selenium, choline, niacin, phosphorus, and magnesium—vital nutrients that promote healthy muscle and nerve function, a regular heartbeat, good circulation, bone maintenance, proper memory function and metabolism, as well as protection against cell damage.
A three-ounce serving of light meat without the skin has 120 calories and less than two grams of fat, but the same size serving of dark meat (sans skin) contains 142 calories and five grams of fat but also more iron and zinc. The tradeoff isn’t a big deal, experts say, so have whichever you prefer. But keep in mind that the skin contains a lot of saturated fat, says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor at Boston University. Her advice is to “cook the turkey in the skin but don’t eat it.”
Also, be aware that “gravy is basically a code for fat,” Ayoob says. That’s because the turkey fat in the bottom of the pan is used for gravy. Gravy also typically contains a lot of salt and little nutritional value. If you continuously baste the turkey with broth to keep it moist while it’s cooking, you’ll lessen the need for gravy. It also helps to use an herb rub on the turkey, for a flavor boost.
Besides being primarily a source of starchy carbohydrates, “stuffing is a vehicle for fatty inclusions such as sausage and butter,” Ayoob warns. That’s partly why one cup of stuffing contains roughly 400 calories, 20 grams of fat, and nearly 1,000 milligrams of sodium. If you can’t imagine Thanksgiving dinner without stuffing, he recommends making it from scratch, using whole-grain bread or croutons or perhaps wild rice and adding chopped celery, onions, mushrooms, dried fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices to make it healthier and more flavorful. Also, use chicken or vegetable broth to add moisture instead of butter.
A bigger concern from a health perspective: Cooking the stuffing inside the turkey—don’t do it! Why? Because a stuffed turkey can’t heat up to a safe internal temperature—165 degrees Fahrenheit—which can make it a source of foodborne illness such as Salmonella, warns Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. Instead, cook the stuffing separately in a casserole dish. An added benefit of this approach: A turkey that’s cooked unstuffed will cook faster, Salge Blake says.
Canned jellied cranberry sauce is essentially void of nutrients—and yet it’s a sugar and calorie bomb with 24 grams of added sugar and 110 calories in a quarter cup.
On the other hand, cranberry sauce or relish that’s homemade—using fresh cranberries, chopped pear or orange, some walnuts, and spices (such as ginger)— is loaded with antioxidants (which protect cells against free radical damage), vitamin C, and fiber, says Jennifer Violi, a clinical dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Palos Heights. It’s also a healthy accompaniment to the turkey, in place of gravy.
On their own, green beans are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamins A, C, K, and niacin, as well as calcium and potassium, Violi notes. The trouble is, they’re often put into casseroles with butter, cream or cream of mushroom soup, fried onions, and a hefty pinch of salt—which creates a less healthy dish.
A healthier approach, suggests Ayoob, is to roast, stir-fry, or sauté green beans in olive oil, and add chopped walnuts or almonds for an umami flavor.
Sweet potatoes are nutritional powerhouses—with lots of beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber—and they’re relatively low in calories; a medium one contains only 114. For a nutritional bonus, eat the skin, which contains lots of fiber, antioxidants, and health-promoting phytochemicals such as anthocyanins and flavonols, which help protect against hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular and neurological diseases, Ayoob says.
Unfortunately, the classic sweet potato casserole is made with butter and topped with marshmallows, which adds fat, sugar, and calories to a naturally sweet food. “Sweet potatoes don’t require a lot of anything—the flavor is already there,” Bonci says. So skip the casserole and enjoy them au natural: If you cut them into chunks and roast them with a little bit of cinnamon, a caramelized flavor will emerge naturally.
A simple baked potato is a good source of protein (really!), fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, folate, niacin, and other good-for-you nutrients. “What drives calories up is what people add to them, such as butter and cream,” Bonci says.
If you can’t imagine Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes, Salge Blake recommends using skim milk or buttermilk instead of cream or whole milk in the mashing process; also, you can use herbs, garlic, or chicken broth to add flavor instead of relying on butter and salt. For a fiber boost, include the skins when you’re mashing the baked spuds.
This classic Thanksgiving dessert is actually fairly nutritious—with calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins A, C, and K, and niacin, as well as fiber.
Where the calories pile up are in the crust—which Ayoob recommends skipping by eating just the filling (and leaving the crust untouched)—and what you top it with (such as whipped cream). Can’t resist the full shebang? “Have a smaller slice of pie and go light with the whipped cream—as in, a teaspoonful,” Ayoob advises. Also, keep in mind that if you make pumpkin pie from scratch, it’s best to buy canned puréed pumpkin—instead of pumpkin pie filling—so that you can control the sugar and add your own spices, he adds.
There’s no getting around the fact that a slice of pecan pie is loaded with calories (more than 600), fat (nearly 38 grams), and sugar (as in: 47 grams). Sure, you’ll get some iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, zinc, vitamin A, and niacin in the mix—but that’s a lot of extra calories to end an already large meal.
If you can’t resist pecan pie, consider having a bite and calling it a day. (If you can actually do this, you deserve a medal for self-control!) “When you eat something, the first bite or two is outrageous,” Salge Blake says, "and all the subsequent bites are never going to be as good.”
At a Thanksgiving meal, people often don’t think about how much alcohol they’re consuming but the calories can add up. What’s more, “alcohol is a disinhibitor—it impairs decision-making about food,” Ayoob warns, and it can stimulate your appetite, leading you to eat more than you intended to. Nutritionists say that wine is a better choice than mixed drinks, which contain more calories. So if you’re inclined to consume alcohol, have a glass or two of wine with the meal and enjoy. Cheers!
And if you do end up overeating, Violi recommends reminding yourself that it’s just one day. “You normally don’t eat this way,” she says, “so get back on track the next day.”