So you made the mistake of promising yourself that you’d at least attempt to eat healthy this Thanksgiving, and now there are several mountains of stuffing and a trough of turkey gravy situated directly in front of you. Your grandmother says, “Go ahead and dig in! You look too skinny!” (Thank you for lying, Grammy.)
Before you fill your plate with a hefty scoop of each side, hang tight: You made yourself a promise, and we’re here to help you keep that promise. We asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help us rank traditional Thanksgiving side dishes — from healthy to pretty dang unhealthy.
1. Brussels Sprouts: “These may not be everyone’s favorite, but they’re a very healthy addition to a Thanksgiving meal,” Friedman explains. “These low-calorie, nutritionally-dense vegetables are one of the better green vegetable sources of protein, and just one serving meets the daily vitamin C and vitamin K requirements.” Vitamin C supports the immune system, and vitamin K plays a role in blood clotting and regulating blood-calcium levels.
“Many studies have suggested that Brussels sprouts may decrease the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and overall mortality,” Friedman adds. “The healthiest way to eat them is steamed, as doing so may help lower cholesterol, because — when they’re steamed — it binds together with bile acids in your digestive tract. When this binding process takes place, it’s easier for bile acids to be excreted, and the result is a lowering of your cholesterol levels.”
2. Cranberry Sauce: “Cranberry sauce is higher in calories than fresh cranberries, but it still offers several health-enhancing minerals and vitamins,” Friedman says. “It’s high in vitamin C, which keeps your immune system working efficiently. It also aids in wound-healing and protects the health of your gums and teeth.”
“Cranberry sauce is very low in fat, and you can use it when making marinades or dressings as a way to reduce the amount of oil you use,” continues Friedman. “It’s also a great source of antioxidants, which are plant compounds that protect you from free radical damage that occurs with exposure to environmental toxins. Cranberry sauce is available canned, but making your own from fresh berries allows for more control over what ingredients you use to prepare it, which can make it an even healthier choice.”
3. Sweet Potatoes (with Marshmallows): “Sweet potatoes offer a rich source of fiber and contain lots of healthy vitamins and minerals, including iron [which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells], calcium [which helps with bone health], selenium [which protects the body from free radicals] and potassium [which supports our muscles], B vitamins and vitamin C,” Friedman explains. “One of the key nutritional benefits of sweet potatoes is that they’re high in an antioxidant known as beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A. This helps support healthy skin, nails and hair. Research shows that eating sweet potatoes can help improve blood sugar regulation in type 2 diabetes. You will, however, defeat sweet potatoes’ blood-sugar-lowering powers if you add sugar-loaded marshmallows. But it’s a holiday, so why not just indulge a little?”
4. Green Bean Casserole: “Green beans are a great source of fiber, potassium and folate [which helps the body produce DNA], and an excellent source of protein, iron and zinc [which support the immune system],” Friedman says. “They contain antioxidants similar to those found in green tea, also known as catechins, which can improve heart health and help prevent cancer. They may also help control type-2 diabetes. As tempting as the occasional shortcut may be, try to avoid canned green beans: Most cans are lined with bisphenol A (BPA), a potent endocrine-disrupting chemical.” Such disruptions can cause cancerous tumors and developmental disorders.
Turning green beans into a casserole, however, admittedly lessens their healthfulness. “The problem with green bean casserole is that most recipes include processed ingredients, such as canned soup and processed cheese, which can be loaded with chemical preservatives, salt and fat,” Friedman says. “It’s best to make this dish from scratch, so you can control the ingredients used. It may take a bit longer to make than the old-school [canned soup] green bean casserole, but the extra effort will be worth it.”
5. Mashed Potatoes: “Potatoes offer healthy fiber, a good amount of vitamin C, vitamin B and minerals, including potassium, magnesium [which regulates muscle and nerve function] and iron,” Friedman explains. “Potatoes are one of those veggies you should buy organic, since most conventional varieties contain pesticides. Frozen or instant mashed potatoes aren’t organic, so it’s best to avoid these options. As with many Thanksgiving sides, the main high-calorie, high-fat ingredients used to make mashed potatoes are the add-ins, like whole milk and margarine. By preparing mashed potatoes with just whole milk, and no margarine, you can save 73 calories and 8 grams of fat per cup. Use cashew milk (a non-dairy option) and you save 40 more calories. If you use butter, do so sparingly or opt for ghee (clarified butter), which is healthier.”
6. Stuffing: “For those of you avoiding carbs, stuffing would seem like the Thanksgiving dish to avoid,” Friedman says. “Considering it’s mostly bread, it ranks as a very high carbohydrate dish. However, you can actually make stuffing healthy by adding protein, fiber and healthy fats, by including nutritious ingredients like apples, nuts, celery, cherries or cranberries and carrots. Also, you can replace the high-sodium chicken broth with unsalted vegetable broth.”
7. Gravy: “Gravy is a delicious way to add flavor to meat, poultry, vegetables and casseroles; however, it can be the most fattening part of a Thanksgiving meal,” Friedman warns. “Both homemade and packaged gravy often contain hidden fats, calories, salt and lots of sugar. You may be unwittingly making your healthy Thanksgiving meal unhealthy by pouring on the gravy.”
But you can at least attempt to make a somewhat healthy gravy if you so choose. “Gravy is traditionally made with the fat drippings from the cooking pan, but this fat added back to the meal increases the calories, and therefore, the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease,” Friedman says. “Instead, opt for a healthier version by making gravy from scratch, using chicken or vegetable stock instead. Simply add spices and a low-carbohydrate thickening option, such as whole-wheat flour, to the stock to make a healthier gravy.”
8. Creamed Corn: “Corn is way at the bottom of my list when it comes to healthy Thanksgiving items,” Friedman says. “Its starchy sweetness can be a problem for anyone watching their weight, as corn has a high glycemic index, meaning it can spike your blood sugar. Corn is subjected to hybridization and genetic modifications — the altering of an organism’s DNA — and this gene-altering has increased yields and pest-resistance, which is one reason why corn is so pervasive in our food system. But it’s also made it more likely to cause weight gain and potential disease. The very small amount of nutrients contained in corn aren’t worth the potential problems it can cause your body. Plus, to make creamed corn requires adding sugar, refined processed flour, salt and heavy cream. There are other options that you can eat for Thanksgiving which taste great alongside your turkey.”
9. Mac and Cheese: “Many recipes for traditional macaroni and cheese have more than 1,000 calories per serving,” Friedman emphasizes. “Add to that the artery-clogging saturated fat from the cheese, milk and butter, and that blue box with the bright orange ‘cheese’ powder could be a heart-attack in the making. Also, packaged brands of macaroni and cheese may contain harmful chemicals called phthalates. These are man-made substances that can interfere with human hormones and have been linked to behavior and brain dysfunction.”
“I always say you’re better off eating the cardboard box than you are the mac and cheese inside, since at least the cardboard offers some fiber,” Friedman adds. “However, mac and cheese can be a wholesome, healthy dish. The key is to cut back on the cheese by using smaller portions or opting for dairy-free vegan or goat cheese. For the noodles, use healthy whole-wheat elbows, or try brown rice penne. For a really healthy twist, add broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes or squash.”
10. Croissants (or Biscuits): “These contain the perfect storm of ingredients for weight gain: Sugar, salt, butter and flour,” Friedman says. “Just one croissant with butter contains 325 calories and 18 grams of fat. That’s twice as much as a donut! Croissants have zero nutritional value. You’re better off having a piece of whole-wheat bread.”
Hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner of Brussels sprouts topped with cranberry sauce.