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Make Thanksgiving a Feast of Health

Simple substitutions on the traditional menu offer lower-fat dishes without compromising taste

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 21 (HealthDay News) -- If the pilgrims could do without marshmallows atop their sweet potatoes, so can you.

Especially if your sweet potato casserole is topped instead with a pecan streusel that's just as tasty as marshmallow but healthier and lower in fat, nutritionists say.

By tweaking traditional Thanksgiving dinner recipes, you can avoid as much as 60 grams of fat, ensuring a healthier meal and a good beginning to the diet-busting holiday season.

"Thanksgiving dinner provides one of the healthiest food options of any holiday, because turkey is a low-fat meat, and sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and cranberries are healthy foods and excellent sources of antioxidants," said Kathy Goldberg, a dietitian and cooking teacher at the University of Michigan Health System's health promotion program, called MFit.

But many traditional recipes -- think creamed onions, sausage stuffing, potato casseroles -- rely on lots of fat, cream, butter and sugar, both white and brown, resulting in a dinner that can range from 2,000 to 3,000 calories, an amount that should suffice an average person for a whole day, she said.

"By cleaning it up a bit," Goldberg said, which means making some simple recipe substitutions, you can provide equally delicious dishes that are nutritious as well.

"Nobody will feel like they're being cheated. Your guests won't even know, as long as you don't talk about it," she added.

Alice Lichtenstein, the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, agreed. "No one wants to take the fun out of Thanksgiving. You just want to provide good choices that will set the stage for the next month as people face the holidays, which I call 'the license-to-eat season,'" she said.

Lichtenstein said people tend to eat more when they are sitting at a table for long stretches of time, and when there's a wide variety of foods to choose from -- both of which occur at Thanksgiving.

"You want to create an environment at the Thanksgiving table that makes it easier for people not to overdo it," she said.

The more you can replace calorie-dense foods such as buttery mashed potatoes with lower-calorie dishes like salads and vegetables that are well-prepared and tasty, the better your guests will feel, Lichtenstein said.

Goldberg, who teaches a healthy holiday cooking class at MFit, offers the following suggestions to "lighten up" your Thanksgiving dinner without sacrificing taste:

  • Instead of buying a self-basting turkey, baste your own bird with low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock. Rubbing herbs and olive oil under the skin of the meat will give it more flavor.
  • When the turkey is done, use the drippings -- "de-fatted" -- to make gravy. "De-fat" by pouring the drippings into a baggie that you've set in a large measuring cup. The fat will rise to the top of the baggie. Then lift the bag out of the measuring cup, prick the bottom and pour the de-fatted drippings back into a pan before thickening with flour or cornstarch.
  • Whole wheat English muffins cut up into cubes are a great base for stuffing, Goldberg said, increasing nutrients, adding more fiber to the stuffing and tasting good. And don't be shy about adding vegetables and fruits like chopped apples or cranberries to the traditional celery and onions in your recipe.
  • Steam or roast vegetables, and serve lots of them. Instead of butter and cream sauces, try low-fat products and/or flavor the dishes with shallots, carmelized onions, lemon zest, herbs and spices.
  • Make it easy on yourself by using frozen vegetables and the bags of prewashed and cut-up vegetables now available in most supermarkets. For only a slight extra cost, you can save time and provide healthful choices.
  • Vary rich pie desserts with an apple crisp or crumble.

"Your food will taste like the traditional recipes. Only the cook has to know the secrets," Goldberg said.

Looking for other nutritious treats? How about kiwis?

"In a recent study, kiwi was found to be one of the most nutritionally dense fruits out of 27 fruits," Stephanie Dean, a dietitian with Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, said in a prepared statement.

Kiwis are full of antioxidants, vitamin E and lutein, and they ward off vision problems, blood clots and even lower cholesterol, Dean said.

Dean's also high on cranberries. "The crimson color of cranberries signal that they are full of flavonoids," she explained, adding that flavonoids are high in antioxidants and help prevent everything from infections to strokes and cancer.

And, for a final recommendation, Dean likes broccoli sprouts, which, she said, are sold by the package and can be thrown on top of salads or be an addition to sandwiches.

"Broccoli sprouts have been shown to actually contain 20 percent more anti-cancer agents than regular broccoli," Dean said.

More information

For a selection of tasty and nutritious Thanksgiving recipes, including Goldberg's sweet potato casserole, visit the University of Michigan.

SOURCES: Kathy Goldberg, M.S., R.D., dietitian and culinary arts specialist, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MFit program; Alice Lichtenstein, D.S.C., Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Friedman School, Tufts University, Boston; Nov. 12, 2007, news release, Baylor Health Care System, Dallas

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