Traditional Thanksgiving Food That's Healthy in Small Portions

Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, but try to control the portion size.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, but try to control the portion size.
Spike Mafford/Photodisc/Thinkstock

When we talk about Thanksgiving, it's all too easy to concentrate solely on the food -- especially since, unlike early Thanksgiving feasts, ours don't involve a serving of eel or swan.

But placing food at the center of an entire day can be stressful for people with diabetes, high cholesterol, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), an eating disorder or any number of other health conditions. It can also inspire people who are otherwise healthy in their eating habits to binge, resulting in heartburn, upset stomach and a sleepless night.

The key is to exercise a little restraint (and keep your uncle and his controversial politics away from the mulled cider). Instead of eating all of the dishes that grace the table, the American Diabetes Association recommends choosing between carbs -- if you're scooping up the potatoes, pass the dinner rolls down the table [source: ADA]. And save your calories for the holiday favorites you don't get to eat the rest of the year:

  • Pumpkin pie. One slice (a small one) of pumpkin pie packs a pretty hefty punch -- 20 percent of your Percent Daily Value recommendation of total fat [source:]. However, it's also high in vitamin A, so if you stick to one slice, you can feel good about achieving balance.
  • Cranberry sauce. A cup of canned cranberry sauce contains 418 calories, most of them from sugars [source:]. We're all familiar with the sugar crash that comes from foods with a high glycemic load, so keep your portion size to a golf ball [source: MD Anderson Cancer Center]. The good news is that, unlike a lot of Thanksgiving foods, cranberry sauce is low in sodium.
  • Turkey gravy. Turkey gravy is at the opposite side of the spectrum: very high in sodium. But a little bit paired with turkey breast meat is a treat that's high in protein, so enjoy your Thanksgiving staple.
  • Stuffing/dressing. Whether you call it stuffing or dressing is a matter for friendly(ish) table debate -- and so is the discussion of the ingredients. Oysters and cornbread, onions and white bread, sausage and sourdough -- regardless of the ingredients, this dish is a big hit of carbs and often sodium. But an ice cream scoop-sized serving isn't going to throw your diet totally off track.
  • Sweet potato casserole. Even combining sweet potatoes with sugar, butter and more sugar doesn't change the fact that sweet potatoes are vitamin-rich and a good source of fiber.

The other nutritional mistakes we make on Thanksgiving are drinking too much alcohol (and not enough water) and skimping on fiber. Stay hydrated, stop drinking after a glass (or two) of wine, and grab a FiberOne bar or have some oatmeal in the morning to keep your digestive system from going into shock.

And if you catch yourself going for seconds, remember that it takes a good 30 minutes for your brain to get the message that you're full -- and that leftovers are awesome.

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  • American Diabetes Association. "Enjoying Thanksgiving." (Sept. 17, 2012)
  • MD Anderson Cancer Center. "Thanksgiving Serving Size Cheat Sheet." November 2011. (Sept. 17, 2012)
  • SELF Nutrition Data. (Sept. 17, 2012)
  • Zelman, Kathleen M. "10 Tips for a Thinner Thanksgiving." WebMD. Last reviewed Nov. 17, 2008. (Sept. 17, 2012)