The Huffington Post Laura Schocker First Posted: 11/19/12 EST Updated: 11/19/12 EST
A classic Thanksgiving pigout may feel like it's basically required, but at an average of 3,000 calories a pop, it's also a diet bust.
The most health-minded among us might load up their plates with the best nutrition intentions -- opting for red wine over white, choosing the multigrain roll rather than the white one and piling on tons of white turkey meat instead of dark. And cranberry sauce is healthy, right?
Not so fast -- turns out, a lot of our classic Thanksgiving nutrition advice is steeped in misinformation. We asked Robert Davis, Ph.D., author of Coffee Is Good For You and HuffPost blogger, to bust nine of the most common myths about this Thursday's meal.
We've all heard that the trigger for those post-feast naps we can't seem to resist is the tryptophan found in turkey. The theory goes that tryptophan, an amino acid, is converted in the body to serotonin and then converted into <a href="http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/940.html">melatonin</a>, which affects the body's sleep cycles. But the truth is, according to <a href="http://www.everwell.com/">Davis</a>, other foods, such as cheese, eggs and other kinds of meat, contain just as much if not more of the amino acid. The most likely culprit for the sleepiness is the amount of carbs (and alcohol) we consume at Thanksgiving dinner, he says.
Just because it's a brown roll doesn't mean it's healthy. Chalk this one up to a marketing tool: Davis explains that "multigrain" just means that there are multiple grains, which could potentially include a variety of refined grains and none of the heart-healthy whole grains. "Multigrain rolls might not be any better than white enriched rolls," Davis says. How to find a truly whole grain roll? Do a little detective work in the store: Davis says the first word on the ingredient list should be "whole." Look for labeling that says whole grain or whole wheat -- but not "made with whole grain," which could still leave room for refined grains.
In a straight-up nutritional face-off, sweet potatoes would win: with about the same number of calories, they have more fiber and vitamins A and C than their white counterparts. But preparation matters: two scoops of sugary, candied sweet potatoes are not the nutritional equal of a plain, baked white potato. (And white potatoes, the ones that aren't slathered in butter, have their own health benefits -- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/29/healthy-food-healthiest-list_n_1636409.html#slide=1161988">check them out here</a>).
While it's technically true that white turkey meat without the skin is the healthier option -- with about 158 calories and 0.5 g of saturated fat per four-ounce serving, according to Davis -- dark meat isn't necessarily <em>unhealthy</em>, especially compared to other types of meat, such as red meat. At 183 calories and 1.6 g of saturated fat per serving (without skin), you can satisfy your craving without blowing it nutritionally. And dark meat contains more of certain nutrients than white, including <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/health/nutrition/20real.html?_r=0">zinc and iron</a>. "The point is if you like dark meat better, you're not necessarily getting a lot more fat and calories," Davis says. "The bigger concern is keeping portions in check rather than, 'Am I eating too much dark meat?'"
Studies have shown that cranberries may really be effective at <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/cranberries-uti-cranberry-urinary-tract-infection_n_1662946.html">preventing urinary tract infections</a> for some people, Davis says. But he points out that's when you eat them regularly, not once a year with your turkey dinner. "Obviously just eating with your Thanksgiving meal is not going to do the trick," he says. What's more, while whole cranberries are healthy, when they're jellied into sauce, they can be loaded with extra sugar and calories.
We've been called killjoys a time or two (or 100) from people who say one unhealthy meal can't do any real damage. But the truth is that it can: research has linked a single high-fat meal to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3170142/">impaired vascular function</a>. If you do overdo it at the dinner table, focus on getting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/25/thanksgiving-detox_n_1108632.html">back on track the next day</a> --- but we'd suggest avoiding the all-out binge in the first place (there will always be leftovers).
Pop-up timers might be convenient -- but they're not always reliable, Davis cautions, which can become a food safety problem. "People should also use a conventional food thermometer, placing it in the innermost part of the wing and thigh and thickest part of the breast to ensure that the turkey is cooked to at least 165 degrees F all over," he says. For more, <a href="http://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/thanksgiving_turkey.html">click over to FoodSafety.gov</a>.
While red wine has a (well-deserved) <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/red-wine/HB00089">health halo</a>, the truth is that other forms of alcohol, including white wine and liquor, are also associated with a lower risk of heart disease, Davis says: "Scientists haven't shown that drinking red wine is better than other forms of alcohol in these long term cohort studies." But remember you can only reap those benefits in moderation -- that means no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two for men. Beyond that, the <a href="http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Alcohol-and-Heart-Disease_UCM_305173_Article.jsp">risks outweigh any benefits</a>.
We often hear fresh veggies are preferable to canned, but that's not necessarily true when it comes to pumpkin. Because canned pumpkin is more concentrated than fresh, it has two to three times more fiber and vitamin A, according to Davis (one note of caution: being more concentrated also means it contains more calories). "The canned is just as good to use if not better," he says. Just be sure you're getting pure pumpkin in the can, not a pumpkin pie mix, which could have sugar, salt and other unhealthy additives mixed in.