My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about Thanksgiving dinner. With all the talk about how to make it a “healthier” meal by replacing traditional dishes and modifying recipes, I think we may be missing an important lesson in healthy eating.
This is Thanksgiving week, and people throughout the country are planning a feast including traditional dishes and family favorites. Even though many of these are not the healthiest choices, they make an appearance on the dinner table each year. Combined with the common occurrence of over-indulging, Thanksgiving dinner can represent a day of poor nutrition choices.
In an effort to make Thanksgiving dinner healthier, recommendations for modifying or replacing traditional dishes are a common theme in magazines, on the morning TV shows, and on the web. While these suggestions are meant to be helpful, I’m not sure they actually serve to make a significant impact on health.
After all, Thanksgiving is one day, and if there was ever a day to give yourself license to indulge, this is it! Of course, trying new foods and cooking techniques is always good, but the impact of replacing the butter in your mashed potatoes with fat-free sour cream or taking the marshmallow topping off Granny’s famous sweet potato dish isn’t realistically going to make you any healthier in the long run.
The truth is that if you eat a healthy diet every day, or even most days, and you have an active lifestyle you can get away with a day—or weekend—of overeating. (Obviously, you should always follow dietary restrictions for any medical conditions you have.) The problem comes when Thanksgiving dinner is yet another unhealthy meal in addition to the others that week or month.
Some of these recommendations are worth trying, for sure. Making an alternative to a traditional dish can get your family to try new foods they might not otherwise consider. And cooking using different ingredients or techniques on Thanksgiving can give you ideas for other meals, too.
However, focusing on modifying your Thanksgiving dinner may distract you from appreciating the greatest potential health benefit of this meal. Given the current confusion about how much and what type of carbohydrates and fats we should eat, there is an increased push to get us to eat less processed food and more real food.
For many of us, Thanksgiving dinner is one of the only times we cook and eat real food. A real turkey, vegetables, and home-made dessert are a huge improvement over the processed foods most of us eat on a daily basis. While we eat turkey at other times, it is almost always in a processed form such as ground turkey or deli meat, which frequently includes other additives. Cooking and eating a whole turkey is, for most families, relatively rare. So is eating a meal that doesn’t come from a restaurant or is heated in a microwave.
Additionally, Thanksgiving dinner is shared simultaneously around a common table (and maybe a kids’ table, too). All too often, meals are consumed away from the family table, frequently at different times. The benefits of eating together as a family are well-known, and can impact nutrition, psychological well-being, and health in general. Maybe Thanksgiving dinner isn’t about the food as much as it is the company. Why not make this a habit at other meals?
This week, let’s all give thanks for family, friends, and a shared meal. Let’s also take a lesson from the day and try to prepare and eat more real food as a family. This may be the biggest benefit of Thanksgiving. That, and a second serving of pumpkin pie!