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Best and Worst Thanksgiving Foods for Healthy Eating and Weight Loss

November 14, 2023
Best and Worst Thanksgiving Foods for Healthy Eating and Weight Loss

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In this article:

  • Many traditional Thanksgiving foods are high-calorie and low-nutrient, but you can plan ahead for a healthier holiday meal.
  • Skinless turkey, green salads, and roasted vegetables are some healthier choices that may be on your table.
  • You can make recipes that have flavors of Thanksgiving but are healthier swaps. Take a look at some examples..
  • Lark can help you lose weight and eat healthier every day as you log food, get tips for eating healthier, and make small changes that can turn into healthy habits.

Most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with friends or family, but the meal can be 3,000 or more calories. You can plan ahead, and keep your calories to a more reasonable amount this year while still getting the flavors you love. The trick is to keep an eye out for the highest calorie foods and choose more nutritious alternatives. Here are some worst and best picks to think about.

Worst: Dark Meat with Skin

Dark turkey meat with skin is high in protein, but it's not lean. A 4-ounce portion of dark meat with skin can have 200 calories and 14 grams of fat. Also watch out for portion sizes, as turkeys are big birds! A single wing with skin, for example, can have 450 calories!

Best: Light Meat without Skin

Light meat turkey, such as the breast, is lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol than dark meat. A 4-ounce portion can have 140 calories. Still, there's no need to stress if you love dark meat. A more important factor is whether you eat the skin. Skip it to save on fat and calories.

Yellow, Dijon, and brown mustard are good choices to add flavor to your turkey as long as they are plain and aren’t creamy varieties.

Worst: Canned Cranberry Sauce

Canned cranberry sauce is a lot like jam; it has a bit of what used to be fruit and a whole lot of sugar. A half-cup serving of cranberry sauce has 56 grams of sugar, which is more than the maximum goal for two days. By the way, dried cranberries tend to be just as bad or worse, since they’re usually sweetened and have just as much added sugar.

Best: Unsweetened Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are among the world’s healthiest foods, and you can make nutritious cranberry sauce at home without being a chef. Purchase fresh or frozen cranberries and add water or orange juice. Bring them to a boil, simmer them, and watch them turn into sauce as you stir. Add a pear before cooking to sweeten them, or use a bit of natural sweetener. Don’t forget that it’s okay to embrace their natural bitterness and flavor without overpowering them with sugar.

Worst: Prepared Creamy Salad

Do yourself a favor and don't add a mayo-laden salad to an already big meal. Waldorf salad, broccoli and bacon salad, and layered salads just add additional calories and fat.

Best: Green Salad

Serve or bring a green salad with dressing on the side. Start with a base of kale, spinach, arugula, lettuce, or mixed greens, and then make it your own. Here are some ideas.

  • Something sweet, such as pomegranate seeds and sliced apples or pears
  • Something crunchy, such as pecans, pumpkin seeds, or walnuts
  • Raw or cooked shaved brussels sprouts or cooked cubes of butternut squash
  • Sliced mushrooms and grape tomato halves
  • A small amount of strong cheese, such as shaved parmesan or crumbled blue cheese

Worst: Candied Yams

Candied yams and sweet potato casserole with butter and honey, marshmallows, or sugar are like having dessert with your main course. One scoop can have 400 calories.

Best: Baked Sweet Potatoes

There’s no need to add excessive fat and sugar when yams and sweet potatoes are naturally creamy and sweet. Just slice or julienne them and bake them in the oven with a spritz of olive oil or cooking spray. If you like, you can add herbs such as rosemary, or drizzle a bit of orange juice to add oomph.

Worst: Corn Casserole

A starchy vegetable cooked in cream sauce and topped with fried onions may not be what the doctor meant when she ordered you to eat your vegetables. Corn, green bean, and other

Thanksgiving casseroles tend to be made with cream soup and other fatty ingredients, and they're best eaten in tiny portions.

Best: Roasted Vegetables

Roasted vegetables are easy and delicious. Just toss them in a bowl with a small amount of olive oil, garlic to taste, and sage or other herbs. Bake them alongside the turkey for about

30-40 minutes. Cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, onions, and carrots are just a few types of vegetables to try.

If you're determined to make a casserole, consider using low-fat cream soup, extra vegetables, and a topping such as whole-grain breadcrumbs or chopped walnuts.

Worst: Mashed Potatoes with Gravy

Mashed potatoes made with butter and cream cheese can have 300 calories per serving, and not a lot of nutrients. Add a half-cup of gravy made with giblets, and you just poured 300 calories onto your meal. That can’t be good!

Best: Low-Fat Smashed Cauliflower with Lighter Gravy

When you swap cauliflower for potatoes, you slash carbs and calories. It’s also good to swap out butter and sour cream. Here are several ways to make your mashed potatoes better for your waistline.

  • Swap pureed cooked cauliflower or carrots for all or half of the potatoes.
  • Use ingredients such as Greek yogurt, low-sodium broth, buttermilk, and small amounts of olive oil instead of butter, cream cheese, and margarine.
  • Choose Yukon gold potatoes for a creamier dish with less added fat.
  • Save yourself time, calories, and fat by topping your mashed potatoes or cauliflower with chicken or turkey gravy from a can, jar, or packet.

Choose the swaps that work for you!

Worst: Sausage Stuffing

You may not be shocked to hear that sausage stuffing isn’t the best choice. It’s often made with fatty processed meat, butter or margarine, and refined bread or rice. It’s a high-calorie food that packs a load of fat, carbs, and nitrates, which are cancer-causing. If you add dried cranberries, there’s a good chance they’re sweetened and add sugar to your stuffing.

Best: Vegetable Stuffing

There are tons of ways to make healthier stuffing while including flavors you love. Here are some ideas.

  • Add lots of vegetables, such as chopped onions, celery, and mushrooms.
  • Use apples instead of sweetened cranberries to sweeten your stuffing.
  • Skip the sausage (after all, isn’t a turkey enough meat for one meal?).
  • Use low-calorie or whole-grain bread or brown rice instead of white bread, challah, or white rice.

Substitute low-sodium broth instead of butter to get the consistency you want.

You can even stuff your bird with herbs and chunks of vegetables like carrots, onions, cauliflower, and cabbage, and bake a healthier dressing on the side. That way, you’ll get delicious vegetables and have a dressing without extra calories and fat from turkey drippings.

Worst: Pecan Pie a la Mode

Pecan pie with a scoop of ice cream can have 600-700 calories, or about the amount in a large meal. Other traditional desserts, such as cheesecake, apple, sweet potato, pumpkin pies, and pumpkin rolls aren’t much better.

Best: Low-Sugar Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake Bars

Fresh fruit is the healthiest swap for dessert. Pears and apples are in peak season, and you can serve them raw in slices, or bake them with olive oil and a touch of cinnamon. They’re usually sweet enough naturally so that you don’t need to add sugar, and you can add a small amount of crushed pecans if you like.

Another option is a healthy recipe swap. For example, try low-sugar pumpkin pie cheesecake bars made with pureed pumpkin, egg whites, low-fat cream cheese, pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and natural sweetener, such as stevia or monk fruit, to taste. Skip the crust. If you want a crunch, sprinkle the top with nuts or oats mixed with cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Bake them in a pan or use muffin cups.

If there’s a dessert that you love and your only chance to have it is on Thanksgiving, have a smaller piece than you might normally have, and savor it. If you have one-third of a slice of pumpkin pie, for example, you’ll only take in about 150 calories. If you only eat the filling, you’ll have only about 80 calories. Swapping 2 tablespoons of whipped topping for ½ cup of icing can save over 100 calories.

Worst: Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages can be high in calories, and are often high in carbs. Drinking can also impair your ability to say no to extra food, and it can interfere with sleep and blood sugar regulation. If you choose to drink, keep it to one drink for women or two for men, and be sure to have a designated driver or use a taxi or rideshare service to get home. Soft drinks, juices, flavored coffee, sweetened tea and other caloric beverages are also unnecessary on Thanksgiving.

Best: Water

Ice water can be welcome on a day when you’re eating a lot. Herbal tea, hot water with a cinnamon stick, decaf coffee, and other low-calorie beverages are also good choices. They can have the added benefit of slowing down your eating.

Worst: Eating Too Much

No matter what you choose, eating too much of it can leave you with an upset stomach or feeling bloated and tired. Eating too much will also give you more calories than you need, which can contribute to weight gain and high blood sugar.

Best: Smaller Portions

Choose small portions of all but the healthiest and low-calorie choices, such as green salads and roasted or raw vegetables. Fill most of your plate with vegetables, then add skinless turkey and small portions of treats that you look forward to all year.

How Lark Can Help

When you plan ahead, you can eat healthier on Thanksgiving. Lark can support your efforts as you track food and get lifestyle tips. Your personal Lark coach is available every day of the year, 24/7, to help you reach your goals through small changes in your daily life.

Click here to see if you may be eligible to join Lark today!

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