This article was written for the Lebanon Local newspaper for November 2017. For my blog readers I have added extra content and several links to recipes. Due to it’s extended length, I am dividing it into a two part series.
We are about two weeks away from one of the largest, solely American holidays—Thanksgiving! Needless to say, it is a food-heavy day (or week!) where thoughts of nutrition often go out the window. I love asking people what their food traditions are during Thanksgiving. Some holiday menus are very traditional, others add in subtle nuances and some are completely out of the ordinary.
Regardless of your food tradition, let’s take a look at six of the standard thanksgiving meal items, their key nutrients and some ways we might be able to make is a little bit healthier! *(part 1 of this article will contain the first three while part 2 will contain the last three)
Turkey- Its funny how traditions get started. Most of the time, the roots are lost while the practice remains. Eating turkey at Thanksgiving is one of those. We know that the first Thanksgiving likely had roast bird including turkey but we don’t know why the tenacity of this tradition has remained. Likely, it has been for many reasons. The good news is there is more than one way to prepare the celebrated bird. Preparation methods range from a brine or dry rub, to breading. Cooking methods include deep frying, BBQing, roasting and overnight cooking.
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 like 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 tuna with sleepiness? It turns out that there is difference between how much tryptophan a food as and how bioavailable it is in the body (and thus its affect). 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. So 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 be attributed to full stomachs requiring increased blood flow for digestion, carbohydrates, and alcoholic beverages.
Want to save time by cooking ahead? Try the turkey casserole bake. You cook all the goods ahead of time and then put them all in a casserole (everything from the turkey, gravy and stuffing!) This is NOT a good option for people with allergies/intolerances to the ingredients but is a fabulous stress saver if that is not an issue for your guests!
Gravy- For the men in my family, this is the elixir of love. It’s that way for many people. The reason likely being due to the satisfying mouth-feel that fat always gives. And then there is salt. Gravy is made from combing the hot fatty drippings of the turkey, some broth all with some form of starch, either flour or corn starch. It can be a fat and carb bomb, especially when dumped quite liberally over the entire plate.
It also can be a real disappointment for your guests who have issues with gluten. Make it easy on them this year by using corn starch instead of flour. See these recipes for some ideas for gluten free gravy andLow carb creamy gravy.
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% pure maple syrup instead of white sugar.)