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The Great Thanksgiving Feast: Myths, Facts and a Dash of Nutrition

As fall settles in and Thanksgiving approaches, the air fills with the scent of roasted turkey, cinnamon spice and freshly baked bread and pies. 

This holiday is marked with traditions and classic dishes, but many things you might believe about your Thanksgiving meal may be false. Does turkey really make you sleepy? Is canned pumpkin unhealthy? What about the white meat vs. dark meat turkey debate?

Noel Ugarte, a clinical registered dietitian with Banner Health, is here to help debunk Thanksgiving meal myths and provide facts that will surely get you talking this holiday. 

Myth: Turkey makes you sleepy

There’s some truth to the idea that tryptophan, an amino acid (a building block of protein) found in turkey, is to blame for your post-meal nap. But it’s not the main cause.

“Overeating and alcoholic drinks are likely the bigger reasons why people feel tired after a post-Thanksgiving meal,” Ugarte said. 

Tip: Instead of skipping the turkey, Ugarte suggests taking things slow. “Rather than avoiding turkey altogether, eat slowly and mindfully to the point of satisfaction rather than fullness. Drink alcohol in moderation and get active together after the Thanksgiving meal.”

Myth: White meat is healthier than dark meat

Each type of meat has its pros and cons. 

Skinless white meat can be tricky to keep moist, but it is lower in both total and saturated fat. 

“On the other hand, dark meat found on turkey thighs and drumsticks is usually moist, flavorful and cheaper than white meat,” Ugarte said. “It is higher in total saturated fat but does have more vitamins and minerals, such as iron and vitamin B12.”

Tip: If you’re after flavor, go for dark meat. If you want to reduce your saturated fat, consider choosing white meat.

Myth: Overeating turkey will cause the meat sweats

Believe it or not, this is true. While you won’t find “meat sweats” listed in any serious medical journal, there is research on how some foods can trigger sweating.

The findings? Your body must work harder to digest protein than carbohydrates and fat. This process can increase your body temperature.

Tip: Don’t overdo it in the meat department. Balance your roast, ham or turkey portion with healthy fruit and veggies. 

Myth: Thanksgiving meals wreak havoc on your waistline

In a word, no. You might feel slightly bloated and tired, but it isn’t unhealthy. 

“Remember, Thanksgiving is one meal out of the year,” she said. 

Tip: Focus on mindful eating. Slow down, savor the flavors, and listen to your body’s cues. Enjoy the festivities without the fear of a looming battle with your pants. 

Myth: Thanksgiving dishes are health hazards

With all the butter, sugar and cream used to make many holiday dishes, it’s no wonder many people have concerns. Ugarte assures us that holiday dishes can be tweaked to align with health goals.

Tip: You can make many healthy Thanksgiving recipes that are more in line with your diet, whether you are diabetic or gluten-free or follow a heart-healthy diet. Here are some suggested holiday nutrition swaps:

For more Thanksgiving food options, check out Tips for Eating Healthier on Thanksgiving.

Myth: Thanksgiving is all about the food

It’s easy to hyper-focus on food during Thanksgiving, but don’t forget the true essence of the holiday. “It’s more than just a feast,” Ugarte said. “It’s a celebration of joy and meaning.”

Tip: If you experience a lot of anxiety surrounding food during this time of year, focusing on other Thanksgiving traditions and activities can help. From family games to crafting, there’s more than what’s on the table. Check out these family and friends ideas that may pique your interest.

Myth: Real pumpkin is better for you than canned pumpkin

Many assume fresh is better, but that’s not the case for canned pumpkin. Typically, processing and storing canned fruits and vegetables involves high-sodium or high-sugar liquid, but that rule doesn’t apply to pumpkin.  

“Canned pumpkin is more concentrated than fresh pumpkin, which means more vitamin A and fiber,” Ugarte said.

Tip: Make sure you grab canned pumpkin and not pumpkin pie filling, which is loaded with sugar and salt.

Myth: Thanksgiving is all about overeating and indulgence

One heavy meal at Thanksgiving dinner won’t do you in, but chronic overeating during the holidays may cause a problem. We gain weight when we overeat again and again and again. 

Tip: It’s easy to go overboard this time of year, so limit your portion sizes and focus on your hunger cues. Ugarte suggests serving yourself food on smaller plates to help you achieve healthier portions. Eat slowly and check in to see where you are throughout the meal on the hunger scale.

“Food plays many critical roles in our lives – more than just nutrition,” Ugarte said. “Preparing and eating food together is a universal way humans celebrate and connect socially. You should be able to enjoy Thanksgiving – or any celebration – without feeling a sense of loss of control and guilt.”

Bottom line

Ditch the myths and focus on balanced eating during the holidays. This way, when family, friends and food come together around the table, you can enjoy the delicious spread without feeling weighed down. Here’s to a guilt-free, joyful feast and creating important memories with loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving!

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