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This or That: What to Eat on Thanksgiving

Nov 20, 2012

There may be no greater threat to someone on a diet than Thanksgiving dinner, with its tempting array of creamy mashed potatoes, tasty but fatty dark meat, pies, stuffing, wine, breads…the list goes on and on. According to the Calorie Control Council, the average number of calories in Thanksgiving dinner can reach 4,500—along with a heaping helping of 229 grams of fat. While you may already know to opt for the less-fatty and less-caloric white turkey meat over the dark stuff, you can save a few more calories based on what you eat or drink along with it. So we turned to Eat This, Not That (Rodale, 2009) for advice on which foods will help you shave calories off those eye-popping numbers, while still enjoying a tasty holiday feast.

To Gear Up for the Big Day: Cereal or Bagels?

If you've got a lot of cooking to do or a crowd to entertain, you'll need lots of energy, and skipping breakfast could mean that you'll help yourself to even more of the calories in Thanksgiving dinner. So should you grab a bagel to charge up for the big day, or sit down for five minutes with a bowl of cereal?

Go with…a bowl of cereal. Bagels are high in carbohydrates, and a study from MIT found that compared with diners who'd eaten high-protein breakfasts, those who ate a high-carb breakfast had higher levels of tryptophan, that same coma-inducing chemical you'll be fighting after eating your Thanksgiving turkey. If protein-rich eggs aren't for you, eat a bowl of cereal, which has high levels of thiamin and riboflavin, both of which boost your body's ability to use energy efficiently.

To Toast the Occasion: Pinot Noir or Cabernet?

Not all of the calories in Thanksgiving dinner come in the form of solid food, so choosing water over juice or soda can help with caloric control. Most wines have similar calorie counts, hovering between 100 and 150 calories per glass. But red wines have an advantage over whites in that they have resveratrol, the cancer-fighting antioxidant found in dark grapes. The downside is that not all red wines have the same levels of that valuable resveratrol.

Go with…Pinot Noir. Packing 5 milligrams of resveratrol per liter of wine, pinot noirs have nearly four times more of the antioxidant than cabernets, found researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Pinot noir also has six fewer calories per serving (121) than cabernets (127). Of course, considering the heft of your Thanksgiving dinner, that's a microscopic savings, but every little bit helps!

At the Table: Yukon Golds or Sweet Potatoes?

Mashed potatoes with gravy and sweet potato casserole usually both appear on Thanksgiving tables. Should you opt for both?

Go with…mashed potatoes with gravy. True, unadulterated sweet potatoes are healthier than their plain white counterparts, but after they've been creamed, candied, and covered in marshmallows, you're better off sticking with ordinary white potatoes with a dab of gravy. Sweet potato casseroles can clock in at 250 calories and 8 grams of fat, while mashed potatoes, prepared without butter and with low-fat milk (rather than cream) add only 140 calories and 7 grams of fat to your meal. The spuds on your plate may not be that low in fat, but unless the alternative is a plain sweet potato, they're probably the better choice.

The Cranberry Sauce Controversy: Homemade or canned?

The debate over the best kind of cranberry sauce likely depends on family tradition, but you may want to rethink tradition when you look at the sugar counts involved.

Go with…homemade. Two half-inch slices of that jellied cranberry sauce pack 43 grams of sugar and 172 calories, and the can is lined with a hormone-disrupting chemical called bishpenol A. A simple homemade cranberry sauce made with real cranberries, some fruit, and fruit juice has 98 calories and 21 grams of sugar in a one third cup serving—and no added chemicals. And it tastes great.

Time for Dessert: Pumpkin Pie or Pecan?

No Thanksgiving dinner is complete without pie, even if it does meaning bringing your daily caloric intake to nearly 2.5 times what it should be. Pecans have healthy fats, and pumpkin is technically a vegetable, so both are good choices, right?

Go with…pumpkin pie. As Eat This, Not That notes, the healthy fats in pecans aren’t enough to compensate for the unhealthy filling—solidified corn syrup. Pumpkin pie with low-fat whipped cream has 335 calories, 15 grams of fat, and half the sugar content of pecan pie, which is loaded down with 450 calories and 21 grams of fat, even without the whipped cream on top! (By the way, if you're the pie maker in the family, see our story on holiday pies for tasty, easy recipes.)

Other Tips to Keep It Healthy

There are some dishes that may be too ingrained in family tradition, such as your grandma's stuffing (which can have 175 calories and 14 grams of fat), to replace. You can cut down on calorie counts, however, by varying your offerings:

• Rather than make green bean casserole with condensed cream-of-mushroom soup and fried onions, serve fresh green beans with sautéed onions (100 calories and 6 grams of fat).

• Serve whole wheat dinner rolls, rather than refined white-flour rolls or cornbread.

• Work some leafy greens into the menu. Kale, spinach, and broccoli are reaching the end of their season, but if you can find these fresh, nutrient-rich greens, toss a few onto your table. They're high in fiber, which is filling and helps control blood sugar, so you're not as susceptible to that after-dinner slump.

If you're doing some or all of the cooking this year, see our story on healthy versions of classic Thanksgiving side dishes…or email a link to whoever's on kitchen duty.


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