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Your Play-by-Play on the Nutritional Values (or Lack Thereof) of Every Item on a Typical Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Day, the average American eats between 2,000 and 4,500 calories, which is a hefty meal when you consider that most people typically consume between 1,600-2,400 calories in an entire day.

But while you may expect to eat a few more calories on Turkey Day, you may be surprised to know what else is lurking on your Thanksgiving table. From the bad (chemical food additives to dangerous trans fats) to the good (antioxidants to vitamins), here's a run-down of what's really on your plate.


You may want to try an organic turkey this year; they're humanely raised and free of antibiotics and additives.

Turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals, and a popular one at that. Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be named the national bird (instead of the eagle) and this holiday favorite was part of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's first meal on the moon.

Touchdowns: Aside from being a great source of lean protein, turkey contains two cancer-fighting nutrients, selenium and niacin, plus B vitamins for energy.

Misses: Typical store-bought turkeys may contain antibiotics. Organic varieties, raised humanely and without these additives, are available in health food stores. Cooking method also makes a difference in the health value of your turkey. While roasted turkey is a healthy choice, deep fried turkey is less so, especially if you eat the skin.


The reason for stuffing's name seems obvious; it is traditionally stuffed inside the turkey, after all. In the Middle Ages, though, stuffing was called "farce," from the Latin word "farcire," which means to stuff. Later, Victorian English replaced the term with "dressing." Traditionally, stuffing was a mixture of vegetables, spices, nuts, spelt and herbs, and often contained liver, brains and organ meat. Today, stuffing is made from a bread and vegetable base with various other ingredients added.

Touchdowns: Stuffing often contains vegetables (celery, onions), dried fruit, nuts and herbs and spices (garlic, parsley, sage, thyme). All of these contain vitamins and phytonutrients that are great for health.

Misses: Stuffing is mostly white bread, which is a refined carbohydrate that can upset your blood sugar levels. Plus, many people add sausage, a processed meat that almost always contains nitrites, a potential carcinogen.

Cranberry Sauce

While cranberries may have been eaten at the first Thanksgiving back in 1621, cranberry sauce was not. Sugar was not available at this time, nor was the notion of boiling the fruit with it to make a sauce.

Touchdowns: Cranberries are loaded with antioxidants and help fight cancer and protect your heart and teeth. For more on the excellent nutrition qualities of cranberries, and three cranberry sauce recipes, check out our past article "The Remarkable Antioxidant Power of Cranberries."

Misses: Cranberry sauce, the store-bought kind and most homemade recipes, is usually high in sugar to temper the tartness of the berries. You can try this no-sugar-added cranberry sauce recipe for a truly healthy and tasty alternative.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes, one of the oldest vegetables around, have been eaten since prehistoric times some 10,000 years ago. They're also a mainstay at most Thanksgiving dinners.

Touchdowns: Sweet potatoes have much more nutrition than regular potatoes, including vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, copper, fiber, vitamin B6, potassium and iron. They're rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and are classified as an anti-diabetic food because animal studies have found they help stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.

Giving thanks for friends and family is the best part of any Thanksgiving meal.

Misses: Plain sweet potatoes are an excellent choice, but pile on sugar, brown sugar, marshmallow topping and maple syrup and your ordinarily healthy sweet potatoes suddenly have as much sugar as a candy bar.

Mashed Potatoes (Russet Potatoes)

Potatoes were not introduced to New England in time for the first Thanksgiving, but they're a regular at most Thanksgiving tables of the 21st century.

Touchdowns: Potatoes have gotten a bad rap with the low-carb craze, but, generally speaking, they're a perfectly acceptable part of the meal. Potatoes contain vitamin C, vitamin B6, copper, potassium, manganese, dietary fiber and phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity.

Misses: Good potatoes go bad when they're mixed with unhealthy ingredients for mashing, such as margarine (many contain trans fats) or an excess of salt. And instant mashed potatoes, the kind that come from a box, may be loaded with artificial flavors and sodium. Even homemade mashed potatoes are mostly starch, so they're best eaten in moderation.


Thanksgiving would not be complete without an autumn "harvest" of seasonal vegetables. From a nutritional standpoint, you cannot go wrong with any vegetable--as long as it's lightly cooked and not loaded with sauces.

Green Bean Casserole: Green beans contain lots of vitamin K for healthy bones and anti-inflammatory nutrients that may reduce the severity of asthma, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. They also contain nutrients that have been found to protect the heart, prevent colon cancer, and support the immune system, skin and memory.

Green bean casserole usually contains cream of mushroom soup. If you opt for a typical variety, it could contain loads of sodium, preservatives and flavor-enhancers like MSG. You could make this healthier by choosing a natural variety of cream of mushroom soup, made without additives.

Broccoli/Brussels Sprouts: These belong to the cruciferous family of vegetables, which are known for their anti-toxin, cancer-fighting capabilities. Topped with a little lemon juice, butter or olive oil, they make an exceptionally healthy part of the meal. However, watch out for topping these veggies with processed cheese sauces. While a little real cheese sprinkled on top is OK, processed cheese sauces typically contain preservatives, artificial colors and flavors and may contain trans fats.

Asparagus: Asparagus is rich in folate, which fights birth defects and protects your heart. It's also an excellent source of inulin, a special carbohydrate that helps the good bacteria in your intestines to grow and flourish. As with other veggies, eaten plain it's a great choice--just watch out for processed hollandaise or other sauces that add calories, bad fats and additives.

Winter Squash: Winter squash varieties include butternut, acorn, Hubbard and turban. They're rich in anti-cancer phytonutrients, vitamin A that protects against emphysema and folate. Resist the urge to add extra brown sugar or maple syrup to these squash -- when cooked, most are already naturally sweet.

Pumpkin and Pecan Pies

Pecans can help lower cholesterol, but go easy on the sugar-filled favorite, pecan pie.

Like cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie was probably not part of the first Thanksgiving. They may have feasted on a pumpkin pudding, however, that would have been similar to pumpkin pie filling. Nuts probably were part of the first Thanksgiving, but a pecan pie as we know it today may not have been.

Touchdowns: Both of these pies have healthy aspects. Pumpkin has the health benefits of squash noted above, while pecans are one of the healthiest nuts around. Pecans are an excellent source of over 19 vitamins and minerals including vitamins E and A, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, several B vitamins and zinc. Plus, a study from New Mexico State University found that eating 3/4 cup of pecans a day may significantly lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and help to clear the arteries.

Misses: As with any desert, these pies should be eaten in moderation as they do contain significant amounts of sugar. Also, if possible, you should make them yourself. Store-bought pies are typically loaded with trans fats, preservatives, corn syrup and low-quality oils. When you make your own, you know exactly what's going into it and can choose higher quality, more nutritious ingredients.

With a few tweaks to the traditional recipes, your Thanksgiving meal can actually be quite healthy. Allow yourself a taste of everything, just watch your portion sizes, and, when the eating (and the dishes) is done, gather up a few friends and family members for a brisk stroll outside. A little fresh air, movement and conversation are the perfect ways to wrap up the meal.

Recommended Reading

The Remarkable Antioxidant Power of Cranberries -- and Three No-Cost Cranberry Recipes

The 11 Healthiest Autumn Fruits and Vegetables


The World's Healthiest Foods

Ohio State University: Be Wary of Gobbling Thanksgiving Calories

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