The nutritional value of the average holiday meal
by Danielle Lipparelli, M.S., R.D.
When the holidays draw near, my thoughts are instantly besieged with memories of family gatherings, twinkling lights, mouth-watering entrees and sumptuous desserts.This is that time of year we celebrate and feast. As a registered dietitian, I’m often asked about the nutritional value of the foods that traditionally grace the holiday table, so let’s take a tour of your holiday feast from a nutritional perspective.
First stop: the bird.
Turkey is a rich source of protein that is usually low in fat depending on how it is prepared. It’s a great source of iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B-vitamins. It’s important to realize that a single serving of turkey is a two- to three-ounce cooked portion, which is about the size of a deck of cards. White meat will typically have less fat than dark. Beware of the skin, which will contribute additional calories from fat, especially if the turkey is fried.
How about the cranberry sauce?
Cranberries are high in vitamin C and packed with phytochemicals and bacteria-blocking nutrients that assist in preventing certain infections. In fact, sailors used to snack on them to prevent scurvy. Look for berries that are firm, plump and glossy – the luster is an indicator of ripeness. These little fruits can contribute to various dishes including stuffing, sparkling beverages and fantastic desserts.
Mashed potatoes are another source of vitamin C and also pack a strong kick of potassium. If you keep the skins on, they become an excellent source of fiber – about three grams of fiber per 5.3 ounce potato. Fiber is helpful in digestion, weight management and may decrease risk of colon cancer and heart disease. Just be wary of the gravy, usually known to carry a lot of sodium and fat. This little topping can negate an otherwise healthful dish.
Next stop stuffing…unfortunately, the name betrays the real purpose. There are, however, nutritional enhancements. You can add some nourishing ingredients to your stuffing with fruits like pears, apples or currants and even veggies such as squash or eggplant. Substituting whole grain bread for others with more refined sugars like cornbread or sourdough, is a good way to increase fiber, folic acid, magnesium and vitamin E.
Vegetable-based or vegetarian side dishes are a great way to work in good nutrition.They don’t have to be boring when there are so many options out there. Try replacing the corn and lima beans with some bright-green broccoli tossed with sliced almonds or orange and yellow squash steamed with flavorful herbs and seasonings.
On to dessert, otherwise known as everyone’s favorite part of the meal. Pumpkin pie and cancer prevention: bet you didn’t see that one coming. Pumpkins provide antioxidants and are a significant source of beta-carotene, which turns into vitamin A. Antioxidants can help fight off cancer-causing agents in your body and may decrease the risk of cancer development. They also may play a role in preventing heart disease. Pecan pie is another favorite around the holidays, and some research indicates that pecan consumption lowers total cholesterol levels. Pecans will also add fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, B and C into your meal.
Try topping your dessert with some non-fat whipped topping — just hide the container, and no one will know the difference. You could also add a colorful fruit salad or a citrus ambrosia to your table for another low-fat option.
Some additional preparation tips include using sugar substitutes in your baking or swapping in half sugar and half substitute. Using skim or low fat milk is a great option for cutting fat calories while still keeping the protein and calcium. Remember, vitamin D is not only present in whole milk, you get plenty in the lower fat versions as well. Try slipping in applesauce where baked recipes call for oil. The cakes come out just as fluffy and with half the fat.
Beverages are often overlooked as a source of calories. Alcohol can add a substantial amount of calories while dismissing all healthy possibilities. Try some diet sodas, hot ciders or sugar-free punch with orange slices floating on top. You’ll be surprised how fast a pitcher of lemon water will disappear in a social gathering. It’s a fair bet that people are looking for ways to cut calories during the holidays and will appreciate the healthier options.
Portion control is a key component to healthy meals. If you can slow down, chew more and recognize your cues to “fullness,” you are on the right track. Don’t let yourself approach a meal as a starving maniac. You will definitely overeat if you don’t prepare. Eat breakfast the morning of a holiday event, and take in a light lunch. This will enable you to savor and enjoy the anticipated flavors of the season with less worry about weight gain.
Dinner with your family and friends will involve conversation and interaction, so plan to take your time and mingle. Wait a little while before eating dessert. Put aside the feeling to rush through everything and take a walk with some friends to look at the holiday lights, rather than watching TV after dinner. Plan some interactive games during your parties so that you’re not just sitting around after the meal. This is the perfect time to celebrate relationships and live in the moment. Happy holidays!
Danielle Lipparelli, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian at Scripps Mercy Hospital. For more information on nutrition or for a physician referral, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777).