Fun healthy facts about your Thanksgiving plate

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With Halloween passed, the gateway for the true holiday season has been opened. It seems to me that everyone is especially excited about this holiday season and incredibly ready for something to look forward to.

Talk of holiday party indulgence and Thanksgiving feasts can be a sensitive subject for the health conscious. The wellness industry will be full of instructional marketing detailing how to stick to your diet during the holidays, or substitutions in Grandma’s corn bread recipe to make it lower in fat or higher in protein. I believe there is a time and a place for those conversations, but not on Thanksgiving — a day to honor tradition and enjoy time with loved ones from near and far. One day of extra calories isn’t going to steer you off track from your health goals.

Instead of taking away foods on our Thanksgiving plate in an effort to be more health conscious, I want to highlight nutrients in some traditional Thanksgiving foods that can be added to enhance the flavor and nutrient profile of our plates. Rather than feeling guilty about the piece of pie, feel empowered by gaining more knowledge and understanding about the nutrients inside that piece of pie.

Turkey: Promotes a boost in mood

Turkey is high in tryptophan, which is an amino acid, or one of the building blocks that makes up the protein in turkey. Tryptophan cannot be made by the human body and must be supplied through food. One of tryptophan’s most important roles in the body is helping to synthesize a “happy chemical,” serotonin, in the brain. Serotonin contributes to our mood, well-being, happiness, cognition and memory. You might be thinking: “Isn’t tryptophan responsible for my post-Thanksgiving meal nap?” It could be, as melatonin, a hormone that encourages our bodies to wind down and sleep, is a middleman in this tryptophan-serotonin pathway. Only a small amount of the body’s tryptophan supply is used to make serotonin, but it has a broad effect on our physical and emotional metabolism. In several different research studies, tryptophan has been shown to be as effective as light therapy and/or medication in boosting serotonin and treating mood disorders. If you want to elevate your turkey game as a mood food, choose light over dark meat, as light turkey meat is said to better promote brain serotonin synthesis. Additionally, ingestion of a food source high in carbohydrates (like stuffing or a dinner roll), can help make the tryptophan in turkey easier to convert to serotonin.

Green beans: Promote bone-building

When you’re enjoying your green bean casserole, know you are simultaneously providing your bones with some extra nutrition. Green beans are packed with bone-building fuel, including calcium. Calcium makes up our bones and teeth and is essential for maintaining our skeletal structure and metabolism. In addition to calcium, we also need phosphorous to form healthy bones. Thankfully, green beans are also considered a significant source of phosphorous. A third bone building nutrient in green beans is vitamin K. Just 1 cup of green beans provides approximately 10 percent of the daily vitamin K requirement. In research studies, low vitamin K intake is associated with bone weakness and increased risk of bone fracture.

Yams: Promote iron absorption

While yams are often mistaken for sweet potatoes due to their shape and color, yams have a starchier, less sweet taste. Yams are high in copper, a trace mineral that is vital for red blood cells to be produced to carry oxygen throughout the body. Yams also contain a high amount of vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron. Adding yams to your plate can help you maximize iron absorption through the high amounts of vitamin C and copper, which will make your immune and circulatory systems work more efficiently.

Cranberries: Promote antioxidant protection

Cranberries contain a tremendous amount of polyphenols, which are micronutrients we can obtain by eating plant-based foods. These polyphenols are rich in bioactive compounds that serve as antioxidants specifically beneficial to heart health. They also help decrease inflammation, and are arguably best known for their role in treating urinary tract infections. The polyphenols in cranberries are concentrated in the cranberry’s skin. Cranberry juices or sauces are typically diluted to exclude the skin of the berry. If possible, choose recipes that incorporate whole cranberries rather than cranberry juices or sauces to reap the full nutrition benefits.

Pumpkin: Promotes sharper vision

Raise your hand if you love anything pumpkin flavored! Pumpkin is a winter squash rich in beta-carotene, a compound in your body that turns into vitamin A. One cup of pumpkin cooked to your liking contains enough beta carotene to meet 245 percent of your reference daily intake of vitamin A. Vitamin A can be thought of as your eye vitamin, as this is one of the most significant nutrients of concern related to eye health. In addition to vitamin A, pumpkins are excellent sources of lutein and zeaxanthin. These hard-to-pronounce nutrients are also linked to eye health in the form of decreased risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataract formation. When you cut that slice of pumpkin pie for dessert, think of it as a source of fuel for your eyes.

These nutrients are all incredibly versatile and can be used creatively in a wide variety of recipes. I encourage you to incorporate at least one or two of these foods in your Thanksgiving spread to enjoy some classic flavors as well as enhanced nutrition. Practice gratitude for the food on your plate, and feel empowered with your newfound knowledge about the way you are nourishing your body through your Thanksgiving meal!

Emma Willingham is a registered dietitian who practices in an outpatient hospital clinic and through her private practice, Fuel with Emma. Willingham specializes in sports-performance nutrition, weight management and nutrition counseling, and aims to promote a resilient relationship between food, mind and body. You can find her on social media at @fuelwithemma.

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