A Healthy Thanksgiving Makeover

10 surprising ways that Thanksgiving, including your favorite potatoes and pie, can be really good for you.

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1. That turkey does more than put you to sleep!


Typical T-Day: White-meat turkey is a fantastic source of lean protein; it's also rich in iron (important for nutrient transport) and B vitamins, which promote healthy brain functioning and help your body burn calories for energy.

Tradition makeover: Make your turkey meal even healthier by ditching the dark meat completely. Simply roast or braise a turkey breast in fat-free broth. "That's the favorite cut for most people anyway," says Marlene Lesson, MS, LDN, nutrition director at Structure House residential weight-loss center in Durham, North Carolina. "Remove the skin and you're saving 72 calories and 9 grams of saturated fat per 4-ounce serving." Want to flip the bird even more? Go organic. "We know that organic turkey doesn't contain antibiotics," explains LA-based dietitian Ashley Koff, RD, "and they are fed food that chickens are meant to eat, so the nutrient profile is optimal."

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2. Try the cranberries, minus the sugar


Typical T-Day: These tart little berries rank among the highest antioxidant foods (powerful cancer-fighting anthocyanins lend them their reddish/purple color), and they deliver vitamins A, C, and E. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says they may help prevent urinary tract infections by thwarting bacteria, such as E. coli, from clinging to urinary tract walls.

Tradition makeover: Traditional cranberry sauce is typically bursting with sugar—and calories. Try to stick to small portions (2 tablespoons) or experiment with a lower-sugar recipe, mixing in other fruits that are naturally sweeter. Nutritionist Lesson suggests combining 3 cups fresh cranberries with 1/2 cup fresh orange juice, 1/4 cup water, 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar, and 1 cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan. Cook at medium-high heat until boiling; reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened (about 12 minutes). Remove cinnamon stick and cool before serving.

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3. The beauty of togetherness


Typical T-Day: The Thanksgiving dinner table gets a bad rap for serving up thousands of calories (and family fights), but the simple act of sitting down as a family offers endless emotional benefits. "There is something absolutely wonderful woven into breaking bread together as a family," says family therapist Carleton Kendrick, EdM, LCSW, author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's. "You praise the cook, the kids get a chance to participate by setting the table or stirring the mashed potatoes. People get the chance to feel important in that they're bringing some joy to people they love." That said, it can be challenging to sit down and reflect when your attention is sucked up by demanding guests, endless cooking, and other holiday stressors.

Tradition makeover: Make sure you're not missing the bonding blessings (so easy to do if you're the hostess). When you sit down (finally) for your big meal, live in the moment. "Start with being grateful for the basics," encourages psychologist Susan Albers, author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. "Look around. Feel your back against the chair and your feet touching the floor." Tap into all five senses to slow down the rush-rush of the holiday and surround yourself and your loved ones with gratitude: Smell the butternut squash roasting. Look at how scrumptious the turkey looks. Listen to the happy chatter of your guests. Sip some wine and let the pinot linger on your palate. Hug your kids.

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4. Pass the (skinnier) pumpkin pie, please


Typical T-Day: You can't really go too wrong with pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is naturally low in calories and high in vitamin A, which helps form and maintain healthy teeth, skin, and eyes (the better to spy your son's cell phone hidden beneath the dinner table). The seeds can be roasted for a nutty-tasting snack that's high in good-for-you fats, and some studies suggest components in pumpkin seed oil may be beneficial for prostate health.

Tradition makeover: Go for the gourd with an even skinnier dessert that still feels indulgent. Chef Cliff Pleau of Seasons 52, a nationwide chain of calorie-conscious grill-and-wine bars, serves mini "pumpkin pies" with gingersnap "crust": Spoon your favorite pumpkin pie filling into pretty 4-ounce glass cups (try cordial glasses), layering with crushed gingersnaps. Top with a dollop of real whipped cream and a gingersnap. "The flavor profile of gingersnaps is so intense, you don't need many of them," Pleau says. Plus, you'll save about 100 calories and 7 grams of fat by ditching the buttery piecrust.

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5. You don't need to skip breakfast


Typical T-Day: There's something so indulgent about starting off Black Friday with Thanksgiving Day leftovers (when else do we get to have stuffing for breakfast?). But too often, we skip our morning meal on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day in an effort to "save up" for dinner. This is pure self-sabotage: The ensuing hunger and plummeting blood sugar almost always lead to bingeing—and not on fresh veggies.

Tradition makeover: Start Thanksgiving off right with a breakfast blending high-quality carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats—the combo will keep you full and satisfied longer than a sugary breakfast cereal. Koff suggests an egg-white burrito (sprouted-grain tortilla, salsa, avocado) or plain organic Greek yogurt sprinkled with granola. That will kick-start your metabolism out of overnight rest mode and help your body burn calories.

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6. Gratitude is a mood-lifter


Typical T-Day: The name says it all: Thanksgiving is a day to express our gratitude. Lucky us: A 2010 review of studies on the topic found that gratitude correlates with improvement in mood, self-esteem, episodes of depression, life satisfaction, and ability to cope with adversity. Research has also linked it to better, longer sleep.

Tradition makeover: Spread your good cheer beyond your own table: Cook a second turkey for a neighbor who recently lost his job, or bring leftovers to a local homeless shelter. "Actively helping others in an ongoing way can be one of your family's 'gratitude goals,'" family therapist Carleton Kendrick says, adding "It's not just one Thursday in November. Thanksgiving is a chance to teach your children and model how to live a grateful life." Volunteering and helping others has also been shown to be good for your health!

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7. You can walk off that big meal


Typical T-Day: It can be tough to get to the gym on Thanksgiving, but that's where that family tradition of the post-dinner walk comes in. Yes, even a stroll around the neighborhood can help burn off that big meal. And you know you need it. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that most Americans gain about a pound during the winter holiday season—and never take it off.

Tradition makeover: If long walks aren't your style, what about a turkey trot? (Google "turkey trot" and you're bound to come up with events near you.) This kind of exercise that families can do together is great, says certified strength and conditioning coach Robert Reames of the Gold's Gym Fitness Institute. In fact, a 2009 Archives of Internal Medicine study found that enrolling in a weight-loss program with a family member or friend may enhance weight loss.

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8. It's not Thanksgiving without the veggies


Typical T-Day: Despite all of the nutritional flak Thanksgiving takes, there are heaps of veggies to be found: brussels sprouts, green beans, butternut squash, asparagus. In their natural state, most veggies offer oodles of antioxidants, are naturally low in fat and calories, and provide a filling dose of fiber. So think light and don't bathe them in cream sauce, butter, or cheese!

Tradition makeover: Remake a traditional favorite—green bean casserole—by ditching the fatty cream of mushroom soup. Dietitian Lesson suggests sauteing 4 cups of green beans and 4 teaspoons of raisins in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkling with 4 teaspoons of toasted pine nuts for a tasty dish with only 60 calories per serving. And don't forget other fabulous winter produce like acorn squash, brussels sprouts, rutabaga, parsnips, apples, and pumpkin. All can be roasted to enhance their natural sweetness without any added fat or calories (stick to no more than 1 teaspoon of olive oil per cup of raw vegetables). Yum!

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9. The hoopla makes us slow down


Typical T-Day: Thanksgiving reminds us that eating is a special event. Instead of scarfing down fast food while racing your son to his tutor or hurriedly eating a microwavable lunch at your desk, you take great care in setting the table with special dishes and cook a meal from scratch.

Tradition makeover: Be even more mindful by telling yourself to savor each bite. "Look at the food on your fork and express gratitude for that bite of food," therapist Albers suggests. "It diverts your mind away from calorie counting and obsessive food thoughts and reminds you that you are lucky to have a wonderful meal before you." The bonus: Mindful eating can help you disengage from food guilt and may even prevent bingeing. "Too often we are thinking about and craving the next bite of pumpkin pie before finishing the one we have," Albers says. "When you slow down, you enjoy food more and therefore eat less."

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10. Even the (sweet) potatoes are good for you!


Typical T-Day: Just one of these nutritional all-stars delivers two-thirds of your daily vitamin C needs and an astounding 769 percent of your vitamin A. You'll also get an impressive 7 grams of fiber, which research has shown can help stave off weight gain. All for 180 calories—if you leave off the butter and mini marshmallows.

Tradition makeover: Pack a major flavor punch minus the fat and calories with Chef Pleau's maple-bourbon glaze (you won't miss those marshmallows): Whisk together one 10.5-ounce can of low-sodium chicken stock; 1/4 cup each maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, and bourbon; 1/2 teaspoon each chipotle Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and salt; 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme; and 1 peeled, minced shallot. Cook in a small saucepot on medium-high for 10-15 minutes until glaze thickens. Drizzle over roasted or mashed sweet potatoes.