Deeper Look: Thanksgiving Dinner and What It Does to You
November 22, 2017
Thanksgiving is upon us, and it’s time to feast. Since the beginning, Thanksgiving has been a time to get together with family, remember what is good in life, and eat a lot of food. To many Americans, it’s an important landmark of the holiday season.
For health-conscious Americans, Thanksgiving is also a time of regret. While many dieters make sure to save a cheat day for it, it can be hard to stay away from overfilling. Whether you end the meal by putting on a football game or by getting ready for those Black Friday deals we’re all waiting for, you probably end it on the couch, feeling tired and bloated.
We all know that high levels of tryptophan in turkey, particularly cold turkey, can cause feelings of exhaustion. But there’s more going on than you might think. In today’s article, we’re going to go over many common parts of Thanksgiving, and what they do to your body.
The Main Course – Turkey
Turkey can make us feel tired, but it’s actually one of the healthiest parts on everyone’s table. A TIME Magazine article published in 2014 claimed that four out of five experts found turkey to be healthy, and there’s plenty of science to back it up. One major thing turkey has going for it is a host of vitamins and minerals that your body needs. This bird will fill you up with a complete spectrum of B vitamins, potassium, and selenium. This does come at a little bit of a cost, as too many vitamins can cause your urine to darken. However, staying hydrated during dinner should keep this away.
One of the biggest issues with turkey comes in the skin. Like most poultry, turkey is a very low-fat entree. However, turkey skin is loaded with fat, and can add several calories—up to 35 in a typical serving, increasing the intake by 26 percent. If you’re maximizing your enjoyment of Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll probably pack away several of these servings, so be careful. White meat enthusiasts are more likely to have a healthy Thanksgiving, as it has less fat than dark meat.
Regular turkey consumption can also help lower your cholesterol. However, it can be high in sodium. In this way, turkey is something of a give and take. As with most healthy foods, you probably shouldn’t eat it for every meal, or even every day. But every week will have you feeling better, and one day certainly won’t hurt.
The experts that TIME Magazine consulted also recommend looking for a turkey that is farm-fresh. Hormones, additives, and antibiotics found in many turkeys have negative health effects that are negligible in the short term, but can build up through several Thanksgiving dinners. If you’re hunting your own dinner, this is less likely to be a problem, but people who aren’t into that should instead search for someone who is. Some companies even offer an adopt-a-turkey program. While it’s likely too late to set up so close to Thanksgiving, these programs allow you to choose your turkey and watch them grow from the day you visit until Thanksgiving has arrived. This can be a fun addition to your festivities, although it is more than a little morbid. Unlike other products, farm-fresh turkey doesn’t run-up the price too much, especially in November. And the taste difference is noticeable. If you like your turkey juicy and healthy, farm fresh turkey is the way to go.
Potatoes are great for you. Despite being known as a carb on the food pyramid, potatoes aren’t too much different from other vegetables.
The inside of a potato has vitamin B6, vitamin C and iron, while being right up there with bananas in terms of potassium. While this can be a problem if you’re suffering from kidney failure, it’s a pretty big health benefit otherwise. Potassium is an electrolyte that can help to regulate body fluid, aid in the transmission of nerve signals, and regulate muscle contractions. It also helps calcium in strengthening your bones.
As mentioned in the CNN article above, potatoes have been found to help with heart health. Many researches find them to be a better carb than pasta, as they are much more “filling.” While the calorie intake is roughly equal, the added nutrients of a potato makes your body feel as though your meal has been much more productive.
It’s logical to assume that mashed potatoes would be healthy, as well. And they are, or at least they should be. Mashed potatoes suffer from two major problems. The first is that many mashed potatoes are prepared without the skin. The skin of a potato is high in fiber. While you can get this in healthier ways, mostly through the peels of other fruits and vegetables, potatoes are certainly preferable to cereal and other sugary ways to get fiber. If you make your mashed potatoes without the skin, as many people do, than you are taking many of the health benefits off of the table.
The second of these health issues are the things that make the mashed potatoes have the creamy texture many people love. If you’ve cooked mashed potatoes before, than you know that they are made with large amounts of butter and milk, or heavy cream in some cases. The potatoes themselves may be healthy, but this adds a significant amount of fat to the dish.
Of course, there are healthier ways to prepare mashed potatoes. While you will find a plethora of recipes online, you’ll find they all look very similar. To make healthy mashed potatoes this Thanksgiving, you’ll want to prepare mashed potatoes almost exactly as you would otherwise. The changes you’ll need to make are keeping the skin on the potato before mashing it, using low-fat milk, and using as little butter and milk as possible to achieve the mashed potato consistency we all know and love.
Is gravy good for you? The answer is simple: not at all. If you need extra fat in your diet due to an illness or disorder, than gravy might be good, but these are edge cases at best. As it were, gravy is juice from the unhealthiest part of meat, with more fat and other unhealthy ingredients added to taste. Gravy is high in fat, sodium, and calories, making it one of the worst parts of your Thanksgiving dinner (before dessert, of course).
Gravy’s only saving grace is moderation. While there is some argument over whether or not “reasonable” amounts of gravy are bad for you, most things eaten in small amounts won’t kill you. If you’re making a dietary exception for Thanksgiving, you shouldn’t feel too bad about putting some gravy on your meat and potatoes. However, if you’re the type of person who drowns your plate in gravy, you may want to pull back some. Fat, even when consumed in one sitting, can raise your levels of LDL cholesterol. If you’re walking away from the table feeling slowed down and exhausted, too much gravy is the most likely cause.
Stuffing doesn’t “feel” healthy, largely because it isn’t. While not quite as bad for you as gravy, stuffing is a sodium-packed carbohydrate that you may not want to eat too much of. While tryptophan is often blamed for everyone falling asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, it’s possible that the bloat is just from stuffing. This is unsurprising, as stuffing is also soaked in the parts of the turkey, and other meat, that we know to be least healthy, much like gravy.
What about instant stuffing? StoveTop has been on our stove tops since it first came into being, but you may seriously want to reconsider this decision. Homemade stuffing might be difficult, but many instant stuffing brands were called in 2011 for containing trace amounts of poison. You can find healthier brands, specifically organic ones, but be on the lookout for BHA-BMT. Derived from petroleum, this is the type of additive you don’t want in your body.
On the other hand, there are some hard-to-see benefits of stuffing. Particularly pronyl-lysine. Found in high amounts in bread crumbs (a large part of stuffing) pronyl-lysine is a cancer-fighting antioxidant that’s hard to find anywhere else. Who knew!
Dinner rolls are a form of bread, and bread is mostly bad for you. Loaded with carbohydrates, bread is a great way to destress. Other great ways to destress include things like junk food, which shares one vital property with bread: it’s addictive. While we’re much less likely to ruin our lives in pursuit of bread, we all know that “one more roll” feeling.
Of course, carbs aren’t all bad for you. A necessary part of a healthy diet, dinner rolls can be a great way to get your daily six servings. The secret to healthy dinner rolls is simple: whole grain. Whole grain breads are healthier than white breads because the carbs are less refined. When we refine a carb, such as when we boil pasta, it converts complex carbohydrates to simple ones. Simple carbohydrates are easier to break down, giving us a huge burst of energy. This skyrockets blood sugar levels, which can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. After this, any of the carbs that weren’t burned are quickly converted to fat, which is easier to put on than to burn.
Like gravy and dinner rolls, pies are only bad for you if you eat too much. Pie crust is loaded with every kind of carbohydrate, which should be a big deterrent to any health-minded individual. However, pies are typically filled with fruit that have health benefits. Apples, as mentioned in a previous article, are a great and delicious way to keep the doctor away. Pumpkin has so many unseen health benefits that Greatist.com referred to it, and the pie-filling made from it, as a superfood. Cherries have fiber, vitamin C, carotenoids, and anthocyanins packed in at the end of their stem. Even pecans, which are notably not a fruit, are loaded with healthy fats and can lower cholesterol.
The Biggest Issue with Thanksgiving: Overeating
While there are more than a few parts of Thanksgiving dinner that are bad for you, it’s still better than a lunch at McDonald’s. If you, or the person making the dinner, are aware of the pitfalls of Thanksgiving dinner, they aren’t difficult to avoid. Stay light on the gravy, moderate the number of rolls you’re eating, choose white meat over dark meat, and make your mashed potatoes with skim milk. Take these steps, and you’ll walk away from the Thanksgiving table feeling just fine, and ready to plan your Black Friday trip.
Unless, of course, you overeat. Now that we know that Thanksgiving dinner itself isn’t too bad for you, we have to assume that the true culprit of eater’s remorse is something else. That something else is very likely to be overeating. When we get caught up in the Thanksgiving festivities, it can be easy to clear one plate, two plates, three plates, and so on.
In 2009, NPR Health Correspondent Patti Neighmond espoused several facts about overeating and what it does to us. You can find the text version of it here. To summarize it, overeating has a snowball effect. When we eat too much, it can mess with our body’s biological clock. Neighmond refers to this effect as putting the clock on “red alert.” This change in our biological clock not only messes with our sleep schedule, causing our body to feel tired directly after, but can lead to further food cravings as our body begins to expect large amounts of food at certain times.
Thanksgiving isn’t as bad as it can feel. Turkey is great for you, and there are health benefits in almost everything on your plate. If you want to keep away from the food coma, you’ll combat it in two places. The first is in the kitchen, where you’ll need to use healthier ingredients, and the second is in the dining room, where you’ll need to maintain healthy eating habits. But remember that holidays are for fun, and one day won’t kill you.