7 food items for a healthier Thanksgiving and five healthy food substitutions that you can make today.
The holidays are great fun, and getting your fill of yummy foods on Thanksgiving is a national tradition. However, people tend to put on a bit of weight with unhealthy food choices made during the holiday season. About half of all American adults—117 million individuals—have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. In almost every demographic, Americans eat too many refined grains, added sugars, sodium, saturated fats, and animal products. By contrast, the majority of Americans don’t eat enough fruits, veggies, whole grains, and seafood.
Multiple opportunities to improve food choices exist throughout the day and in varied settings where food is obtained and consumed. Small shifts made at each of these many eating occasions over time can add up to real improvements in eating patterns.
Consider substituting the mashed potatoes and gravy for healthier Thanksgiving food choices.
In a study exploring the value of daily self-weighing during the holiday season, researchers put this weight gain in perspective: “Very short periods of time throughout the year are shown to account for a considerable portion of yearly weight gain. One of those critical times is the holiday season (mid-November to January).”
At the risk of being total killjoys, we present seven healthier, nutrient-rich food items to include in your Thanksgiving meal.
This fruit is rich in antioxidant phenolic compounds, and antioxidants boost immunity by preventing damage secondary to oxidative stress (ie, reactive oxygen species). Cranberry consumption has also been shown to help fight cancer, atherosclerosis, and hypertension. A-type proanthocyanidins found in cranberry give it antibacterial properties by interfering with the adherence of Escherichia coli to uroepithelial cells in the urothelial tract.
Turnip and its cruciferous friends
Mixed in with mouthfuls of mashed potatoes and turkey, a cruciferous vegetable or two may make its way into your stomach. Cruciferous vegetables include turnip, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. They are high in vitamin and mineral content, low in calories, and high in fiber. Okay, no surprise here.
But here’s a surprising fact about cruciferous vegetables—they are rich in chitinase. Chitinase is a type of enzyme that breaks down chitin, which is the second most abundant polysaccharide in nature after cellulose, and found in the exoskeletons of insects, in fungal cell walls, and in certain structures in vertebrates and invertebrates.
According to a review article published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences: “Chitinases have a significant function in human health care. An important medical use for chitinases has also been recommended in augmenting the activity of anti-fungal drugs in therapy for fungal diseases. Due to their topical applications, they have a prospective use in anti-fungal creams and lotions …Chitinases also have some other medical applications as well … Several lines of evidence have demonstrated the importance of chitinases as an effector of host defense in the mammalian immune system.”
The key bioactive ingredients in cinnamon are essential oils and derivatives, such as cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, and cinnamate.
In addition to having a high antioxidant profile, cinnamon has numerous health benefits, some of which include:
Antibacterial activity against gastrointestinal and respiratory pathogens
Anti-inflammatory properties via inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2)
Blood glucose-lowering effects
Neurocognitive protection against some degenerative disorders like Alzheimer disease via inhibition of the aggregation of tau protein
Although it may make your breath reek during after-dinner conversation, garlic is good for your body, particularly cardiovascular health. In some studies, garlic slowed the development of atherosclerosis per ultrasound findings and measures of brachial artery flow. Furthermore, garlic extract has been shown to lower heart disease biomarkers, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and LDL cholesterol. Garlic has antiplatelet activity, and inhibits COX-1 activity and thromboxane A2 formation.
Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice appears to be good for you. It is a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. The health benefits of cinnamon have been discussed, but both ginger and cloves are good for you, too. In human trials, ginger supplements decreased appetite, BMI values, and insulin resistance. Furthermore, cloves—like various other spices, including rosemary and sage—are rich in antioxidants.
Go ahead and season your bird with rosemary. Bioactive compounds in rosemary include phenolic acids, diterpenes, flavonoids, and tannins, as well as volatile oils. According to some studies, rosemary may be good for the brain by enhancing communication between brain cells. Specifically, rosemary foils both acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase in vitro.
Turkey (or in my case tofurkey)
And the bird itself? Skinless turkey is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, while chock-full of B vitamins, zinc, selenium, and high-quality protein. And if you want a natural sleep agent, turkey is also rich in tryptophan. (Just kidding, tryptophan in turkey doesn’t make you sleepy.)
Researchers have shown that self-weighing in the morning during the holiday season may help you to maintain your baseline weight. So, if you have trouble consciously rebuffing the bounties of Thanksgiving, you can always engage the scale each morning for a debriefing.
With an eye toward small shifts in dietary patterns, here are five healthy food substitutions that you can make today.
Heavy and sour creams to yogurt
In various recipes for baked goods, dressings, and sauces that call for sour or heavy creams, yogurt can be used as a healthy substitute with little difference in taste. In recipes calling for sour cream, for example, you can use fat-free yogurt instead. And in recipes calling for heavy cream, try substituting equal parts low-fat yogurt and plain, low-fat unsalted cottage cheese. You’ll get the same great taste and consistency without the high saturated fat content.
It is increasingly understood that fermented foods can also have enhanced nutritional and functional properties due to transformation of substrates and formation of bioactive or bioavailable end-products. Many fermented foods also contain living microorganisms of which some are genetically similar to strains used as probiotics. Although only a limited number of clinical studies on fermented foods have been performed, there is evidence that these foods provide health benefits well beyond the starting food materials.
Milk chocolate to dark chocolate
The cacao flavanols contained in dark chocolate are antioxidants that can help reverse the effects of some degenerative diseases, such as those related to the eyes. Furthermore, dark chocolate has been found to improve cardiovascular function, enhance blood flow, and slow memory loss. Eating dark chocolate has also been found to boost mood and cognition.
Processed to unprocessed meat
Although both processed and unprocessed red meats have been tied to increased mortality, study findings concerning unprocessed red meat have been mixed. To further examine the associations of unprocessed red meat, processed meat, and other dietary protein sources with the risk of mortality, researchers analyzed data from the Netherlands Cohort study, which followed 120,852 participants aged 55-69 years for dietary and lifestyle habits.
The study authors concluded:
“This large prospective study suggests that, while red (unprocessed) meat intake is not related to increased mortality, processed meat consumption is related to an increased risk of overall, [cardiovascular], and respiratory mortality, potentially due to nitrite. Substituting processed meat with other protein sources may lower mortality risk. The findings provide support for public health recommendations to minimize processed meat intake.”
Sugary beverages to coffee, tea, or water
Ideally, nobody should be drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. However, if you can’t go cold turkey, consider cutting back. In one high-powered study published by the American Diabetes Association, substituting just one daily serving of a sugar-sweetened beverage—including fruit juice—with water, coffee, or tea was associated with a 2% to 10% decrease in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Importantly, no decrease was observed in those who switched to an artificially sweetened beverage.
Saturated fats to unsaturated fats
Taking into consideration the totality of the scientific evidence, satisfying rigorous criteria for causality, one would conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of [cardiovascular disease].
Saturated fat intake is related to increases in LDL-cholesterol levels, which can lead to atherosclerosis if left untreated. In Mediterranean and East Asian populations whose diets generally consist of low saturated fat intake, lower rates of cardiovascular disease have been observed.
Examples of foods with high levels of saturated fats include fatty beef, pork, butter, and lard.