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5 Secrets to a Happier and Healthier Thanksgiving

Our dietician’s surprising words of wisdom will help you sail through the Thanksgiving holiday healthy and guilt free.

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As we step away from routine to enjoy the holidays and the indulgence that often accompanies gatherings of family and friends, we sometimes end up worrying about what we should (and should not) be eating. But Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for the abundance of choices available to us. We should allow ourselves to enjoy good company and great food.

Dietitians serving on the front line in the battle for better health through smarter food choices understand perhaps better than anyone that a holiday centered around food is no time to be obsessing about the little things. If we focus too much on the little things, we risk missing what’s important.

Monica Meadows, director of the Coordinated Program in Dietetics in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, has some surprising words of wisdom that will help you sail through the Thanksgiving holiday healthy and guilt free.

It is ok to:

#1 Fry your turkey

Fried turkey

[Credit: Flickr user smcgee] 

Is frying a less healthful approach to preparing turkey than roasting?

Research has indicated that most of the oil absorbed by a turkey in the process of frying is absorbed by the skin, says Meadows. The breast meat absorbs very little, if any, of the frying oil if the cooking temperature remains optimal throughout the cooking process.

Unless you eat the skin, there is little difference in calories and fat between the roasted and fried turkey, as long as the fried turkey is cooked in a healthy fat like peanut or canola oil. To minimize the absorption of oil, the turkey should be cooked at the recommended temperature and not soak in the oil when the cooking is complete.

Research has also indicated that frying properly also results in moister breast meat, compared to roasting.

However you prepare your turkey, the internal temperature of the dark turkey meat should reach 175°-180° F and the internal temperature of the white turkey meat should reach 165°-170° F.

#2 Enjoy a post-turkey nap (but it’s not the turkey making you drowsy)

Cat nap

[Credit: Flickr user Takashi Hososhima] 

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in turkey and in other foods like eggs, cold-water fish, soy, milk and cheese. The theory goes that, because tryptophan can cross the blood-brain barrier, it’s the tryptophan-rich turkey meat making us feel sleepy. However, there has been no research to support this theory, says Meadows.

After-feast drowsiness is more likely to be the result of having enjoyed a day off of work, less than normal caffeine consumption, extra carbohydrates or some combination of these or other factors.

#3 Spice it up


[Credit: Flickr user Sharon Drummond] 

Winter desserts are redolent with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. These are the holiday spices in North America.

Other cultures add cumin, chilies, cardamom or turmeric to foods. While we are not likely to use herbs or spices in our cooking in amounts that would add health benefits, adding herbs and spices adds taste and dimension to foods, discouraging the addition of salt, sugar or fat.

#4 Eat dessert

Thanksgiving dessert pecan pie

[Credit: Flickr user my amii] 

Remember that the choices you make during the holidays are not everyday choices, says Meadows.

Go ahead and taste your favorite dessert. Putting it on your plate doesn’t mean you have to eat the whole slice of pie if you find a few bites to be satisfying. Some traditional Thanksgiving Day desserts even come with lots of vitamin and minerals along with the calories and fat. (Read more about the nutrients found in burnt orange foods, including pumpkin pie and carrot cake.)

#5 Load up your plate and try everything…

Thanksgiving dinner

[Credit: Flickr user Ian David Wescott] 

Just choose a smaller plate. Swapping a 10-inch plate for the typical 12-inch plate will likely lead to taking (and eating) less food. Remember, you can always go back for seconds. Load up on vegetables and fruit; put as many colors of vegetables on your plate as possible. Those dishes are better for you and will give you that full feeling faster. And while you’re at it, try a food you may have disliked in the past. Your sense of taste changes as you age and you might just find a new favorite food.

If a well-meaning relative persists in steering you toward the triple-decker bacon, macaroni and cheese casserole she made for the occasion, add a small serving to your plate while exclaiming, “Wow! That asparagus looks too good to pass by! I just can’t get enough asparagus.” Remember, you don’t need to clean your plate.

Eating well during the holidays is about a balance of smart choices and a little indulgence. Try not to worry too much about the minutiae of the day, says Meadows.

Health news

This story is part of our yearlong series “In Pursuit of Health,” covering medical news and research happening across the university.