Turkey skin: More good fat than bad, and other Thanksgiving truths
November 23rd, 2010
04:20 PM ET

Turkey skin: More good fat than bad, and other Thanksgiving truths

It's that time of year again when some people try to take the fun out of Thanksgiving dinner by highlighting just how many calories the average American will be consuming in this one, very special meal. It completely overshadows the fact that the individual, traditional components of this feast have some true health benefits and with some simple techniques can be prepared in a tasty AND healthy way. It's worth a reminder of what we're eating (in moderation) is truly good for us.

"Turkey is a lean, flavorful protein source," says Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's also a source of trace minerals zinc and selenium, which helps with cell and tissue repair and growth," she adds. Harvard's health newsletter says it's hard to beat turkey when you're looking for a lean cut of meat: "A 3-ounce serving of skinless white meat [which is about the size of a woman's palm] contains 25 grams of protein, barely 3 grams of fat, and less than 1 gram of saturated fat." The newsletter also notes that turkey is a good source of arginine, which some research suggests may help open arteries.

You may not have to forgo the scrumptious skin either, suggests Lilian Cheung, editorial director of "The Nutrition Source" from Harvard's School of Public Health. "There is more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat in poultry skin.  The skin adds calories, but there is more healthful fat in it than unhealthful fat. So it's OK to enjoy, if you like it," she tells CNN.  Moore suggests having some, rather than a whole plateful of skin may be advisable.  "If you roast your turkey on a rack most of the fat will drip down" says Cheung. Cooking Light magazine offers a recipe for the ultimate roasted turkey .

"Cranberries are naturally antioxidant rich," says Moore. Antioxidants can help protect the cells in your body from damage caused by molecules called 'free radicals. '" These harmful molecules are produced when the body breaks down food, or by tobacco smoke or radiation or other environmental pollutants, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"They've been shown to help your heart health and they might even improve brain health," says Moore.

Consuming cranberries in liquid form may help prevent urinary tract infection (but not treat them as some might think). But for the traditional consumption of cranberries on this holiday, Moore suggests making your own chutney or sauce to make them healthier than the store bought version. "Prepare them with orange juice or you can even reduce the amount of sugar by half"," she says, which help keeps the sugar and calorie count down. Food Network chef Tyler Florence has a yummy recipe that does just that.

Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are tasty and packed with nutrition. They are a great source of beta-carotene, which gets converted into vitamin A, which can help maintain healthy eyes and may also be good for your heart.  Sweet potatoes are also high in potassium (it's not just the banana!). "Potassium is important because it blunts the effect of salt and it also helps lower blood pressure," Moore explains.

The beauty of this root vegetable is that it's already sweet, "so you have to add a lot to them to flavor them," says Moore. Simply roasting sweet potatoes in the oven will help the sugars inside caramelize and naturally sweeten this aptly named sweet potato.  Harvard's health newsletter offers a slightly more decadent yet doctor-approved recipe.

Green beans
Moore notes this is a dish is a "great place to scale back" the calories. Green beans themselves are very low in calories. They only have 35 in a cup. However the traditional green bean casserole is made with cream of mushroom soup. Moore suggests trying to use fat-free or low-fat soup can make for a healthier dish. However, by forgoing the mushroom soup altogether and adding some olive oil, lemon or garlic, green beans can be a heart-healthy, low-calorie and tasty alternative, says Moore.

Pumpkin itself is another good source of vitamins A and C and very low in calories (only 25 calories in half a cup), says Moore. But  in the company of other traditional pie ingredients, the nutritional benefits can be wiped out by the calories in just one piece (about 300 per slice according to the USDA).

Moore says there are ways to modify a traditional recipe: "Instead of whole milk, you can use evaporated skim milk [which] still provides a velvety texture."  She also recommends cutting back on the butter by a half or a quarter and reduce the sugar by a half or a third.

Health.com: Thanksgiving recipes for picky guests

Finally, pecans
Pecans are a definitely a heart-healthy source of mono-unsaturated fat, which have been shown to lower bad cholesterol levels, says Moore. They are also a source of fiber, which can help curb your appetite. But traditional pecan pie, made with lots of corn syrup and sugar, can easily lead to 500 calories in a slice. Reducing the amount of sugar may make a caloric dent, but Moore suggests enjoying this traditional element in a completely different (and healthy) way. "I like them with Brussels sprouts" Or, says Moore, "Why not have some roasted pecans around to snack on before the meal?"

If you can't do without the pie, Cheung says "you could use a whole grain pie crust," because whole grains are very good for heart health and regularity. Cooking Light suggests making a healthier pecan pie by putting healthier ingredients in, rather than taking not-so healthy things out.

Regardless of how you choose to modify your dishes to make them healthier, Moore suggests trying them out before the big day, so you're sure they are still as delicious as possible.

One more way to make your Thanksgiving healthy is to reduce the stress. For that you may turn to our colleagues at Eatocracy:  They'll be live-blogging from Wednesday evening through Thursday mealtime, offering kitchen and hosting advice or offering a supportive shoulder and a laugh if you need it. Just leave a note in the comments or reach out on Twitter @eatocracy and they'll do the best to help you keep calm and carry on.

Cheung offers this final thought for you when you sit down for your Thanksgiving feast – practice "mindful eating." Slow down, reflect on how the food came to you.

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