Not sure which end of the naughty-or-nice spectrum some of your favorite holiday dishes are on? We asked experts to help us identify some of the best and worst holiday foods for your health.
The holidays. That time of year many of us look forward to enjoying a variety of delicious dishes.
And as much as some of us may want to believe that calories, sugar, and fat don’t count once the season starts, our bodies can’t ignore them so easily.
In fact, research has shown that Americans experience an average weight increase of up to 0.2 percent over Thanksgiving and 0.4 percent over Christmas.
That may not sound like much, but the average person usually doesn’t lose the extra holiday weight they gain once the season ends.
This can eventually lead to creeping weight gain over months and years as weight goes on, but doesn’t come off — bringing with it an increased risk of numerous health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Further compounding the problem is that holiday foods can sometimes be deceptive, and we don’t always know what should be enjoyed in moderation or what we can feel good about revisiting for seconds.
However, knowing which end of the dietary naughty-or-nice scale holiday food items fall on can make a big difference.
According to experts, these are the some of the healthiest (and unhealthiest) holiday favorites that may end up on your Thanksgiving table.
“We all love seasonal beverages that get us into the holiday spirit, but it’s important to be mindful of the effects they have on our health,” Dr. Heather Kunen, orthodontist and co-founder of Beam Street told Healthline.
Sugary drinks like apple cider can increase your risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
Kunen explained that while apple cider is a popular drink in the fall and winter months, “its heightened levels of sugar and acid make it a huge offender against oral health.”
If you absolutely must have a glass, she suggests drinking it quickly and immediately rinsing with water to prevent the sugar and acid from coating your teeth.
Herb roasted turkey can be a great food choice on Thanksgiving, according to registered dietitian Elizabeth Huggins of Hilton Head Health.
“Start with a fresh turkey labeled ‘natural,’ which indicates that artificial ingredients, chemical preservatives, and coloring ingredients have not been added to the meat,” Huggins advised.
From there, add some fresh herbs, olive oil, and aromatic stuffing options like lemon, apple, onions, garlic, rosemary, and sage, and Huggins said you’ve got a healthy and delicious protein ready to serve.
“When taking a simple and wholesome ingredient like sweet potatoes and burying them with butter, sugar, and marshmallows (made from granulated sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin), not only do you lose the great taste of the sweet potatoes, it also adds a ridiculous amount of processed sugar to this side dish,” Huggins said.
She said it’s best to keep the sweet potatoes simple and healthy.
Huggins recommended adding some green to your table for a “nice contrast of color, texture, and balance to your Thanksgiving meal.”
Brussels sprouts are high in fiber and nutrients, and a cup of cooked Brussels sprouts packs the punch of 137 percent of your daily recommended vitamin K, 81 percent vitamin C, and 12 percent vitamin A and folate — all for just 28 calories.
Huggins said: “A simple recipe might start with fresh trimmed and halved Brussels sprouts prepared with just a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Adding ingredients such as shallots and chicken broth can help shape the flavor.”
You might have convinced yourself in years past that this vegetable dish was on the healthy side (hey, it’s got some green in there, right?).
But registered dietitian Bonnie Balk of Maple Holistics explained it’s a deceptive dish.
“Although this may be counted as the green veggie on the menu, its nutrition content begs to differ,” she said.
Green beans may be loaded with fiber (about 3 grams per cup, according to Balk), protein (2 grams), and vitamins A and C — and all for a relatively low calorie count (30 calories per cup). But turning them into a casserole diminishes some of that good.
“Once we add in canned creamy soup, soy sauce, and fried onions to the mix,” Balk explained, “the health benefits are overshadowed by the high sodium, fat, and calorie contents.”
Balk also pointed out that most green bean casseroles have about 200 calories, 22 grams of carbs, 10 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, and 574 milligrams of sodium per single serving.
“Bear in mind, these are the nutrition facts for one cup. Unless you whip out your handy measuring cup, you’re likely scooping over a cup and a half each time you take a helping.”
Licensed medical acupuncturist and nutritional consultant Jamie Bacharach of Acupuncture Jerusalem said that roasted potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, and asparagus all make great, healthy Thanksgiving sides.
“These vegetables possess varying degrees of nutritional density, many being defined as superfoods due to their high antioxidant and vitamin content,” Bacharach explained.
“To make certain your roasted vegetables are as healthy as possible, use a healthy cooking oil like avocado oil in order to limit saturated fats and boost the nutritional content found in the dish,” Bacharach added.
“The problem with stuffing in terms of your health is not in the concept of the dish, but in the common execution,” Bacharach said.
This is because people often try to dress stuffing up with unhealthy additives, she explained.
“Bacon, sausage, mince meat, giblets, and a variety of similar ingredients find their way into many a stuffing, which takes an already unhealthy dish — often topping 500 calories per serving, depending on the recipe — to an entirely new level of unhealthy,” she said.
If you’ve got your heart set on stuffing, Bacharach suggested skipping the extra ingredients, using whole grain bread instead of white bread, and limiting the amount of salt and butter you use.
“If plain stuffing isn’t good enough, it may not be worth the hit to your health,” Bacharach advised.
Global Master Chef Karl J. Guggenmos, senior culinary advisor at Healthy Meals Supreme, said that a single slice of pecan pie is about 503 calories and loaded with sugar.
Australian registered dietitian, author, and founder of the award-winning prebiotic gut health brand Uplift Food, Kara Landau agreed that pecan pie is one of the worst options on most Thanksgiving tables.
“Instead of going for a sugar-rich pie for dessert, why not be the person who brings some healthier options that are both lower in sugar and higher in anti-inflammatory, gut-healthy nutrients?” Landau said.
She suggested baked apples with cinnamon topped with Greek yogurt instead.
Lindsay Collier, MS, RD, clinical dietitian specialist of Westchester Medical Center, offered up a few tips for enjoying your Thanksgiving meal to its fullest while still remaining healthy.
For turkey, she said:
- A serving size is 3.5 ounces (the size of a deck of cards).
- Removing the skin is the best way to reduce calories and fat.
- The leanest cut is from the breast (versus the wing or thigh).
- There is minimal nutritional difference between dark and white meat.
For improving upon classic sides, she suggested:
- Mashed potatoes can be full of cream and butter. Exchange for lower fat milk (skim or 1%) to decrease the calories and fat while preparing this dish.
- Stuffing (even store bought mixes) can be made healthier with the addition of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Some favorite add-ons include apples, celery, pumpkin seeds, and cranberries.
- Butternut squash can be prepared in many ways, is low in calories (about 60 calories per cup when cubed), and is an excellent source of vitamin A.
- Don’t be scared of cranberry sauce. While it is high in sugar, it’s a condiment. Just watch the portion sizes.
And when it comes to dessert, Collier said:
- Pumpkin puree used for pies or other desserts is an excellent source of vitamin A.
- Consider making apple or pumpkin crisp instead of pies.
Guggenmos also suggested:
- Cut down your portion sizes of less healthy foods to about half or 2/3 of what you would normally have and increase your vegetables like fresh green beans, broccoli, and carrots.
- For mashed potatoes, try to replace 1/3 of the potatoes with cooked and mashed cauliflower. If done right, you’ll hardly know the difference. Also, try to replace the butter or at least some of the butter with avocado mayonnaise or almond milk.
- For cranberry sauce, use fresh cranberries and cook them with lemon juice, ginger, vanilla, a little honey, or coconut sugar. Another option: try monk fruit sugar, which has no calories, is said to be 300 times sweeter than sugar, and is loaded with vitamin C.
- For pies, substitute regular sugar with coconut sugar or monk fruit sugar.
- For stuffing, try to use 1/2 less cornbread and add more fresh vegetables. Use low-fat turkey stock. If you make your own, chill the stock after it’s finished and lift off the fat that’s solidified on top. For more smoothness, add some avocado mayonnaise.
- For better dinner rolls, try to replace 1/3 of the wheat with an ancient grain like flour from einkorn, spelt, sorghum, oats, or bulgur wheat to increase the nutritional value.
And if you’re still feeling heartbroken about that green bean casserole, Balk suggested making your own “creamy” texture, minus the cream. To do this, she said:
- Heat 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan.
- Add 3 tablespoons of flour and whisk until fragrant, for around 1 minute.
- Slowly pour in 3/4 cup vegetable broth and 3/4 cup fat free milk.
- Mix together, bring to a boil, and continue whisking until a thick consistency forms.
- Add in 3 cups of fresh or frozen string beans to the sauce.
- Pour the beans and sauce into a baking dish and sprinkle with whole wheat breadcrumbs (seasoned with garlic and onion powder).
- Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes and enjoy.