The Surprising Health Secrets of Your Favorite Thanksgiving Foods

Your plate of turkey and all the trimmings is packed with essential nutrients, fiber, and even cancer fighters. Here are the all-stars you’ll want to feast on this year.

The A-lister: Butternut SquashScreen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.40.48 PM

You love roasted butternut for its caramelized flavor and sweet bite, but Kristy Del Coro, MS, RD, CDN, Senior Culinary Nutritionist for SPE Certified, touts the squash’s high concentration of vitamin A—nearly 3 times the daily recommended requirements per cup—which helps keep vision strong and maintain cell health and immune system function. “Butternut squash is delicious in soup, mashed, or used in a sweet application,” says Del Coro. “It also has less starch and sugar than a sweet potato.”

The Fiber Filler: Green BeansScreen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.40.56 PM

Buried deep within that creamy, fried-onion-topped green bean casserole is a low-calorie, fiber-filled vegetable waiting to shine. One cup of green beans contains 31 calories and 3 grams of fiber, plus vitamins A and C and even some iron, says Jessica DeCostole, MS, RD outpatient dietitian at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, Md. The insoluble fiber in green beans keeps things moving through your digestive system—which can be especially important after a day eating larger-than-normal quantities of rich foods. DeCostole recommends skipping the soup can recipe and trying this delicious idea instead: Sautee 1 pound of fresh, trimmed beans in 2 tablespoons olive oil with 2 chopped garlic cloves, then sprinkle with ¼ cup sliced toasted almonds. See more ideas here.

The Disease Fighter: Brussels SproutsScreen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.41.07 PM

You’re likely to see one or more cruciferous veggies on the Thanksgiving buffet: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens. Help yourself, says Del Coro. These nutrient-rich plants are filled with cancer-fighting phytochemicals, and could reduce the risk of colorectal, breast, lung, and prostate cancers. Her favorite way to eat them: roasted or sauteed, with a tiny bit of chopped bacon added for flavor.

The Hunger Banisher: TurkeyScreen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.41.14 PM

Whether you prefer white or dark meat, says Del Coro, turkey is healthy, lean protein. In fact, she recommends using rendered turkey fat to baste the bird and make the gravy. “The fat in turkey is healthier than the butter you might baste it with,” she says. (And while we’re on the topic—a few tablespoons of gravy for a 3-ounce portion of turkey isn’t going to burst your good-nutrition bubble, says Del Coro.) In addition to providing your body with the fuel it needs to maintain nearly every function, protein keeps you satiated, which means you won’t be eyeballing a third helping of buttermilk mashed potatoes 20 minutes from now.

The Immunity Boost: CranberriesScreen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.41.26 PM

In their natural form (read: before you cook them down with a cup of sugar), cranberries provide a nice dose (10 percent per ½-cup serving) of daily-recommended amounts of both vitamin C and fiber, says DeCostole. Vitamin C is essential in collagen production, helps the body absorb iron, and keeps the immune system functioning properly. Additionally, she says, some studies suggest that the high levels of proanthocyanidins (PACs) in cranberries can reduce occurrence of UTIs. And as if that weren’t reason enough to work these red berries into your meal, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, in cell studies, cranberry extract and anthocyanins (which are in cranberries) decrease free radical damage to DNA that can lead to certain cancers such as colon, lung, oral, and stomach. Add a raw cranberry relish to your holiday table, or throw some fresh or no-sugar-added dried cranberries into your favorite whole-grain stuffing recipe.

The Fuel Optimizers: Sweet PotatoesScreen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.41.33 PM

The sweet potato contains a rich amount of nutrients—including vitamins B6 and C, potassium, fiber, and phytochemicals— that you can’t duplicate in pill form, says Susan Dopart, MS, RD, CDE. Just as well—it’s more fun to eat this sweet, starchy spud. One potato contains 45 percent of your daily manganese needs (which plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption, and blood sugar regulation) and 24 percent potassium (which helps muscle, nerve, kidney, heart, and digestive function). Dopart advises steering clear of the sugary, marshmallow-topped casserole and instead trying this sweet technique: Cut raw sweet potatoes in discs, then grill in a ridged grill pan on both sides and sprinkle with cinnamon, ginger, and allspice.

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