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Thanksgiving: What it can do for you and what you can do for it

Here we are, only a few weeks away from one of the largest and the solely American holiday —Thanksgiving!

Needless to say, it is a food-heavy day (or week!), during which thoughts of nutrition often go out the window.

I love asking people what their Thanksgiving food traditions are. Some holiday menus are very traditional; others add in subtle nuances and some are completely out-of-the-ordinary.

Holidays can be stressful for those trying to make healthier changes or those who have food allergies or intolerances. Regardless of your food tradition or health goals, let’s take a look at five of the standard Thanksgiving meal items, their key nutrients and some ways we might be able to make it a little bit healthier!


Ever wondered why turkey is said to bring on the post-meal drowsies? You likely have heard that the phenomenon is due to the amino acid L-tryptophan present in turkey. L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is the sole precursor to the important brain chemical serotonin, responsible for mood. Tryptophan also helps to make melatonin, another chemical that influences sleep.

Other foods, such as chicken, tuna, milk and even some fruits and veggies, contain tryptophan. In actuality, one ounce of canned tuna contains more tryptophan than one pound of turkey!

Yet why do we never credit that tuna with sleepiness? It turns out that there is difference between how much tryptophan a food contains and how bioavailable it is in the body (and thus its effect). So even though foods like turkey and tuna are high in tryptophan, they may not provide the sleepy punch we expect.

Also, a higher-protein meal that contains tryptophan will not necessarily initiate a quick-release of L-tryptophan and serotonin. A protein meal actually suppresses some of that release. Surprisingly, it is carbohydrates that will do more to increase tryptophan and serotonin. This has to do with the mechanism of insulin response after eating carbs.

While tryptophan-rich foods certainly affect the overall generation of serotonin, they aren’t responsible for an immediate release, like one that would cause you to get sleepy post-meal.

In short, post-Thanksgiving sleepiness is more likely attributed to overeating refined carbohydrates, a full stomach (which requires increased blood flow for digestion) and alcoholic beverages.

Cranberry Sauce

Despite being the easiest item you can make for Thanksgiving, it is likely the most commonly purchased from a can! Cranberries are full of bioactive compounds and antioxidents that provide vitamin C, fight inflammation and bladder infections.

A little dab of this on your meal can only reap health benefits. Unfortunately, a load of sugar is commonly used to mask the tart taste of cranberries.

My suggestion: if you make it from scratch, aim for a little less sugar (and maybe use forms such as 100-percent pure maple syrup instead of white sugar.)

Green Beans

These seasonal veggies are full of fiber, potassium, and vitamins A and K. Despite their nutritional goodness, however, it seems that many people make the traditional green bean casserole solely for the fried onion crispies on top or the creaminess from the canned soup poured into it.

Oftentimes, the dish isn’t much of a hit at all, so families skip making it all together. Yet beans don’t have to be ousted from the festivities so quickly.

There are ways to make green beans crispy and satisfying without the added junk. Just try roasting them in the oven. With minimal effort, you can end up with buttery crispiness without all the “unnecessaries.” If you simply aren’t a green bean fan, try another green veggie dish, such as a festive harvest salad, cabbage slaw or other roasted veggies.

Opt for something colorful as well as crunchy!

Sweet Potatoes/Yams  or Mashed Potatoes

Everyone has a preference for one or another of these. But there are a few things you can do to make them healthier, but still tasty.

You will be doing your waistline, blood sugar and mood a big favor this year by skipping the traditional sweet potato casserole that calls for marshmallows and added sugar. Simply adding cinnamon to these already-sweet veggies actually accentuates their sweetness, so try that first. If you feel you need more sweetness, then add 100 percent pure maple syrup rather than white or brown sugar.

Make these mashed or create a new twist by roasting them in the oven with a tad of oil and a pinch of salt, garlic and herbs ( I recommend rosemary).  This is sure to be a winner for the sweet potato fry lovers in your family!

For those good ol’ mashed potatoes, mix half of the mashed potatoes with cooked, pureed cauliflower. This provides fewer carbs, more fiber and key nutrients that support your liver (and after all the eating and drinking people do, liver support is rather helpful!)

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin, a regular winter squash which we have glorified and and added sugar and spice, naturally has its health benefits. It is full of beta carotene (precursor to Vitamin A) and contains a bit of fiber.

However, not everyone is a fan of pumpkin pie, so you may want to opt for other fruit pies, such as apple or peach. You can cut out the crust entirely by making cobblers with an oatmeal or almond flour topping. If you make your own more traditional crust, use recipes that use butter instead of shortening (which are full of inflammatory, hydrogenated oils).

One last consideration: A tender topic of note during Thanksgiving is food allergies and intolerances. If you know a guest with these issues will be coming, coordinate with them and see what modifications can be made.

While you might not be able to modify every item on the menu, find the items that you can reasonably change. You may discover a new favorite and your guests will profusely thank you for giving them greater peace of mind during a holiday that can present a lot of stress.

Whatever you eat for Thanksgiving and with whomever you dine, I hope this holiday is full to overflowing with laughter, good fellowship and mouth-watering food!

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her husband and toddler and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. Find her blog at thepantrylab.com, or on Facebook under “Dietitian Cathryn.”