Thanksgiving can be an important opportunity for family bonding and celebrating our nation’s rich history. But a huge feast with all the wrong foods could actually be inauthentic and detrimental for your health.
Below are the best and worst Thanksgiving foods according to the latest nutritional guidelines, and thousands of years of Native American consumption.
Stuffing is effectively bread, and usually white bread at that. White bread is high in processed sugars and generally not a good part of a balanced diet. As nutritionist Carrie Ruxton put it, “cheap white bread made with just flour- there is no point in having it at all.”
Stuffing is an especially ironic dish for Thanksgiving considering that when the first pilgrims arrived, they brought with them seeds for wheat (to make bread)… European seeds that would not grow in the Cape Cod soil.
The colony was saved from starvation when the Wampanoag natives shared their own seeds and crops, such as corn and squash, and taught the Europeans how to cultivate them. The Thanksgiving ceremony we celebrate today is meant to commemorate our thanks to them (though relations quickly deteriorated into all-out war in the following decades).
In other words, stuffing had no place at the original Thanksgiving, and it likely has no place at yours.
Corn, on the other hand, was the staple of most Native American civilizations, allowing great nations across two continents to grow to over 100 million before European contact.
But even if it’s authentic, is corn healthy?
Many have come to believe that corn is unhealthily sweet because of the stigma of high fructose corn syrup. But corn syrup comes from field corn, while an ear of corn sold in stores for human consumption, called sweet corn, actually has ⅓ the sugar content of an apple.
Corn is also a good source of fiber for gut health, and contains phytochemicals that may improve vision.
Nevertheless, Native Americans took many millenia to begin growing and eating corn because it lacked the amino acids lysine and tryptophan (part of many proteins) and niacin (Vitamin B3). Corn only became popular when it was paired with protein-rich beans and squash.
All this is to say that while corn has its benefits, it is still a grain (like wheat), and should be paired with vegetables and protein-rich foods for a wholesome Thanksgiving dinner.
While the whole association between tryptophan in turkey and drowsiness may be a myth, turkey still contains many healthy properties.
Turkey is a lean meat (low fat) like chicken and certain cuts of pork, and is rich with many essential and filling proteins, such as tryptophan and niacin. Turkey can help to fill in the nutritional gap left by grains such as corn.
Nevertheless, consumers should be careful: Jennie-O recently recalled 91,000 pounds of raw, ground turkey due to Salmonella. Whole birds that were sold are unaffected. The CDC is also warning people to avoid Romaine lettuce due to an E Coli outbreak. Many believe that many food-borne illnesses are a recent product of factory farming, and likely were not around in such quantities during the days of the pilgrims and Native Americans.
While potatoes do come from the new world, North American tribes like the Wampanoag of New England had yet to cultivate them. Mashed potatoes were not on the original Thanksgiving menu (and neither was cranberry sauce, which was invented by an Englishman 50 years later).
Potatoes are a starch-rich grain, and have received a lot of the same criticism as bread. However, they also contain many essential nutrients such as Vitamin C, potassium and niacin. They have about the same amount of calories as an ear of corn, and are part of a healthy diet in balanced quantities.
Sweet potato is generally considered even healthier (and good for diabetics) and offers even more diverse nutrients than regular potatoes.
Often times, the worst aspect of potato dishes, whether mashed or fried, is not the potato by the oil, salt, or sugar that goes into the preparation. Nutritionist Hazel Flight says that potatoes are “surprisingly good for you”, and that while people tend to overeat on chips, “baked or boiled potatoes are rarely eaten to excess.”
Being Thankful And Healthy
Ultimately, any feast where one overeats is likely to be bad for your health. But on the other hand, socializing and de-stressing have been found to be good for your health
The best secret to a healthy Thanksgiving is eating most foods in moderation while avoiding certain high-carb foods like cranberry sauce, juice or stuffing– foods that were mostly not part of the original Thanksgiving ceremony anyway.
Eating slowly and drinking lots of water (or unsweetened iced tea) can also help you feel full faster. Then the challenge becomes not succumbing to your relatives’ insistence that you eat more!
Eating the right foods can not only ward away the morning after guilt, but also help one feel closer to the Native American and Pilgrim history that this holiday is meant to celebrate.