Healthy Lifestyle

Gobble up healthy Thanksgiving meal tips that are easy as pie

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Family serves roasted turkey and other Thanksgiving food as they sit around a table


Time spent with family and friends enjoying a delicious Thanksgiving Day meal can create lasting memories. More things to look forward to — if you’re trying to stick to a diet, there are many healthy options to choose from!


By Laura Nahins, Registered Dietitian, Nuvance Health


Celebrating Thanksgiving while being mindful of your diet and making healthier choices can be challenging. Even though holidays can throw you off your normal eating routine, you don’t have to go cold turkey and avoid the foods you love on Thanksgiving Day.


Here are tips that are easy as pie and still allow you to gobble up your Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings.*


Learn more about nutrition counseling at Nuvance Health.


Let’s talk turkey


As with most holidays and traditions, food takes center stage, and Thanksgiving is no exception. You can still enjoy many Thanksgiving Day foods while avoiding feelings of discomfort associated with overeating. One of those foods is turkey, which most people think of first when it comes to Thanksgiving.


Did you know there is a difference in the number of calories found in dark meat versus white meat? There is!


Both white and dark meat turkey can be healthy options. However, if you are counting calories, white meat may be a better option because dark meat contains slightly more calories and fat than white meat. Both the dark and white meat of turkey contain important vitamins such as magnesium, iron and vitamin D. Dark meat contains additional vitamins such as zinc, riboflavin, thiamine and vitamins B6 and B12.


Keep in mind that how a turkey is cooked will also impact its nutritional value. Some people deep fry their Thanksgiving turkey using oil while others like to roast theirs. Make sure to check with your host to see how they have prepared the Thanksgiving turkey. Deep-fried turkey can pack on the calories, as can dressings, sauces and gravy. Read on to find out the different between deep-fried and roasted turkey.


Deep-fried turkey versus roasted turkey


When it comes to nutritional values, deep-fried turkey has more calories and more fat than traditional roasted turkey, but not by much. However, depending on the type of oil used, deep-fried turkey will have more trans fat than a roasted turkey. Trans fat is a type of fat that should be limited or avoided completely because it can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes if you eat it often.


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  • Deep-fried Thanksgiving turkey has become popular over the years and one way to make it a little bit healthier is to use peanut oil. Peanut oil is one of the healthiest oils to use in cooking because it is naturally trans fat free, cholesterol free and low in saturated fats. Alternatively, if you do not want to deep fry your turkey in oil but still want that golden crispy skin, some outdoor air fryers are large enough to cook a medium-sized whole turkey. 


  • Oven roasted turkey is the healthiest way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. Using fresh herbs as spices and butter alternatives like olive oil will also help reduce the chances of adding more trans fat to the turkey, which is found in its skin.


Eat like a bird?


It’s easy to overdo it on Thanksgiving, leaving you feeling stuffed, tired and sometimes uncomfortable. Excessive eating or binge eating can lead to a higher risk for chronic health conditions and disease, weight gain, digestive issues and fatigue if overeating is a habit.


Most Americans will eat a Thanksgiving meal of 3,000 calories or more, according to the Calorie Control Council. The total number of calories an adult should consume per day varies by age, gender, metabolism, activity level and other factors. But to put a Thanksgiving meal in perspective, even an active adult should consume fewer than 2,400 a day. Most people would have to run four hours to burn 3,000 calories.


But you don’t have to eat like a bird on Thanksgiving to stay healthy. All you need to do is practice portion control. Here are tips on how you manage portions and feel your best, while still enjoying all the trimmings.


  • Keep a regular meal schedule. You may think about skipping breakfast since you will be eating a big Thanksgiving meal later. But it might actually cause you to overeat because you will be too hungry. Aim to eat a light breakfast; you might find yourself eating less when it’s time to sit down for turkey.        


  • Use a smaller plate and prioritize special foods. Grab a smaller plate before making your way over to the buffet. Then, fill it with the foods you enjoy the most. Skip foods you can have anytime and opt to eat foods that are only available on Thanksgiving.


  • Fill your plate with vegetables. Thanksgiving sides such as sweet potato and green beans are usually favorites around the table so be sure to fill your plate because vegetables contain lots of fiber. Foods that contain fiber make you feel full faster. Practice the “plate method” by filling half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (think green beans, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, squash, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts). Then, fill the other two quarters of your plate with protein (hello, turkey!) and starch (sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes). Consider how the vegetables are prepared and avoid adding heavy dressings with butter and cream, if possible.


  • Eat slowly. Eating slowly helps your brain and stomach communicate better that you are full. It takes at least 20 minutes for your brain to realize your stomach is full. Eating slower gives your brain adequate time to process the feeling and relay the message. 


  • Avoid drinking alcohol or limit it. Alcohol can lead to overeating; in fact, some studies suggest that there is a direct correlation between binge eating and binge drinking alcohol. You often overeat when you drink alcohol so try to avoid it.


  • Socialize away from the food. Thanksgiving tables are usually buzzing with conversation. Try striking up conversations away from the table where food is out of sight and the temptation to eat is reduced.


  • Get active. Keep your friends and family moving with games and activities. Participate in a local turkey trot or go for a family walk.


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Gobble up or go cold turkey


Now that you have the basics down, let’s move on to some important nutritional information about those traditional Thanksgiving dishes you have come to love over the years. Here are the ones you should gobble up and the ones you should consume in smaller quantities, or skip, if you feel you don’t want them.


Go cold turkey


  • Mashed potatoes. Often cooked with loads of butter, heavy cream and salt, mashed potatoes are a rich and calorie dense food loaded with carbohydrates and unhealthy saturated fats. Choose a small portion of mashed potatoes if you are watching your waistline or avoid them altogether if you feel you will overindulge and lose control. You may choose to opt for a healthier version made with sweet potato or cauliflower, less salt and healthy butter alternatives such as olive oil.


  • Stuffing. You can’t think of Thanksgiving turkey without a hefty portion of stuffing. But this starchy filler is saturated in butter, seasoned with salt and primarily consists of bread. Instead, choose a stuffing that includes only vegetables without the bread. You will be surprised at how good roasted vegetable stuffing with celery, carrots, onions and garlic tastes without the starch and added carbohydrates of bread.    


  • Gravy. Some people make gravy from the pan drippings of the turkey, which is not so high in fat because turkey meat is very lean. However, some people make traditional turkey gravy with flour and added salt to help thicken its texture. Try making your own by using just the pan drippings as gravy on your table instead of a store-bought packet gravy or gravy with added salt and flour that is loaded with high sodium and other preservatives.  


  • Pecan pie. A single slice of pecan pie can contain more than 500 calories. Most commercially made pecan pies contain lots of corn syrup, which can increase weight gain and risk for heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol if eaten regularly. Pecan pie is one of the most calorie-dense desserts offered on Thanksgiving. Aim to have a reasonably sized slice of pecan pie if that’s what you look forward to most during the holidays. If you’re baking the pie and looking for a lower-calorie option, substitute oatmeal for pecans. You can also choose apple pie or pumpkin pie instead, which are packed with nutrients with fewer calories than a nut-based pie.


Gobble up!


  • Turkey is a very dainty and lean protein that has little fat making it a healthy choice for your Thanksgiving plate. Contrary to popular belief, turkey alone doesn’t make you tired. Turkey does contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your body make a hormone that causes relaxation and sleepiness. Sleepiness after the Thanksgiving meal is likely the result of consuming too much food and alcohol that makes you want to unbutton your pants and lay down on the couch.


  • Green beans (not green bean casserole) are a healthy choice because of their vitamins. Green beans are rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene which help your eyesight. Green beans also contain antioxidants that help to eliminate free radicals inside your body, which can help reduce the risk of cancer. Green beans are also a good source of folate and potassium, which helps to regulate your blood pressure. Enjoy them with sautéed garlic and slivered almonds, which are also heart-healthy foods!


  • Sugar-free cranberry sauce. Cranberries have many nutritional benefits from preventing urinary tract infections to reducing inflammation in your body. Since cranberries are naturally tart, they are hardly ever eaten raw. Store-bought cans of cranberry sauce likely contain lots of added sugar so it is better to make your own at home or buy a sugar-free version.  


  • Pumpkin pie. Pumpkins are a heart-healthy fruit loaded with vitamin A — an essential nutrient needed to help your immune system fight off infections. Pumpkins are considered a superfood for their rich and dense nutrient contents. Although pumpkin is found in sweet-tasting foods such as pumpkin pie, it actually doesn’t contain a lot of sugar. Most sugar is added to pumpkin dishes. Opt to eat a crust-less pumpkin pie that is made with half the amount of sugar or a sugar-free, calorie-free sweetener that won’t spike your blood sugar.    


The bottom line: Thanksgiving is a time of the year we celebrate being thankful. Whether you are watching your weight or just want to make healthier choices, Thanksgiving mealtime can seem challenging and overwhelming. You can feel in control by practicing portion control above everything else. Keep a regular meal schedule and don’t skip breakfast on Thanksgiving Day because it could lead to overeating during the big meal. Enjoy the foods that are special to Thanksgiving and avoid foods you can have any time.


If you do find yourself overindulging on Thanksgiving, don’t sweat it! One day of overeating shouldn’t ruin your overall progress toward your health goals. From all of us at Nuvance Health, we wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving.


*Disclaimer: If you or your guests have food allergies, please speak with your doctor or registered dietitian about additional tips for a healthy and safe Thanksgiving meal.