As thoughts about fried turkeys, mashed potatoes, and pecan pies start to enter your mind to plan the perfect thanksgiving dinner with friends and family, you might want to think twice about what will appear on your table.
Many traditional thanksgiving dishes are loaded with carbohydrates, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. While these nostalgic dishes can be extremely tasty, a plate (or two) isn’t good for your blood sugar or your waistline. They may even leave you feeling sluggish and tired a little while later, and you may find yourself opting for a nap instead of hanging with the family (no, it’s not the turkey).
In this article, we will go over common thanksgiving foods, their impact on glucose, and healthy swaps your blood sugar (and waistline) will thank you for.
What Are Some Common Thanksgiving Foods?
When you think of thanksgiving, a big, flavorful, roasted turkey is probably the first thing that comes to mind. This centerpiece is served with accompaniments like mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and stuffing (just to name a few).
So, are these foods really “bad” for you? No! But, when you combine them all into one meal and consider everything you add to them (sugar, salt, cream, and butter), they will come with some added calories that can lead to blood sugar spikes.
Take mashed potatoes, for example. Potatoes offer various health benefits and are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Fiber helps slow down how quickly sugar from the foods you eat enters your bloodstream, proving to be an essential part of blood sugar management. But thanksgiving potatoes are often loaded with cheese, sour cream, butter, and even bacon, which adds more calories and salt to your meal.
Plus, when you factor in all the other carby sides like stuffing and dinner rolls, those potatoes will likely have a higher glycemic load, causing a blood sugar spike.
High blood sugar spikes lead to low blood sugar crashes, directly impact on your mood and energy levels. So, right around the time you eat and shortly after, you will probably feel energized and ready to plan some post-dinner games. But, because a high spike leads to low crashes, once your blood sugar starts to dip, it will drop quickly and leave you feeling tired, sluggish, and ready for a nap (hence the term food coma). It can also cause you to have more sugar cravings, and you may end up reaching for another piece of pie.
Healthy Thanksgiving Swaps
Don’t ditch all the potatoes (or anything else) just yet. Let’s dive into some healthy thanksgiving swaps that won’t lead you into a food coma.
Lean Turkey Roast
Thanksgiving wouldn’t be thanksgiving without the show’s main star—turkey. A traditional turkey roast is laden with butter and other ingredients high in saturated and trans fats, which aren’t good for your health.
Instead, try using heart-healthy oils (like olive oil) and add more spices and herbs to give it flavor. You can even add some lemon to give it a hint of brightness. Try sticking to light cuts of meat instead of dark meats to cut out unnecessary calories while still enjoying all the goodness of a classic thanksgiving turkey.
What pairs better with a delicious roasted turkey than a heaping side of mashed potatoes and gravy? Probably not much. The two are a perfect match. But, the high glycemic index of potatoes can make your blood sugar spike.
Not all hope is lost. You can still enjoy a tasty mashed side. Just swap the potatoes for cauliflower. Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable that is naturally high in fiber and contains antioxidants and phytonutrients that can protect against cancer, boost your immune system, and support heart health. 1-3 Try serving these easy, cauliflower mashed potatoes on your dining room table this year.
Turkey isn’t complete without stuff. Unfortunately, most traditional stuffings are made with white bread. White bread is high on the GI (70) and contains primarily sugar and white flour, likely raising blood sugar quickly.
Try using quinoa instead of bread for a stuffing that’s just as delicious, has fewer carbs, plus is high in protein and fiber. Quinoa is also high in nutrients like iron and magnesium, which supports your metabolism and may help you lose weight. 4,5
Sliced Sweet Potatoes
Candied yams topped with brown sugar, pecans, and a layer of toasted marshmallows is a staple dish found on most Thanksgiving tables. It’s no secret that this delicious dish isn’t good for your blood sugar.
Sweet potatoes have a lower GI than regular potatoes, making them a better option for blood sugar. To keep their GI lower, try slicing and steaming them instead of baking. Top them with a little drizzle of honey, a pinch of cinnamon, and walnuts. This alternative is just as sweet and satisfying and can help minimize a spike.
Brussel Sprout Salad
Comforting staples like a green bean casserole almost feel like a must-have at thanksgiving dinner. While this nostalgic side can feel like home, it’s also loaded with high-fat ingredients like heavy cream, butter, cheese bread crumbs, and fried toppings, which isn’t the best option for your metabolic health (or your waistline).
Instead, try opting for another green vegetable—Brussels sprouts. Like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts are cruciferous vegetables that are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are especially rich in vitamin K and vitamin C, which supports bone health and immune function. 6,7 Their fiber content can help mitigate a blood sugar spike, which may be helpful alongside some other carb-heavy sides.
Try tossing Brussels sprouts in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasting them in the oven until they get nice and crispy. If you want something a little fresher, this shaved Brussels sprout salad will surely be a hit.
Some people love it, others hate it, but regardless of how you feel about it, cranberry sauce always makes its way onto the table. You might think it’s a healthy choice since it's made from fruits that are high in vitamins and minerals, but this ooey, gooey, sweet sauce doesn’t carry the nutritional punch of fresh cranberries.
In their natural form, cranberries are really tart. So to turn them into the sweet sauce you are used to seeing at thanksgiving, tons of sugar is added. Just a quarter-cup serving of cranberry sauce packs around 22 grams of sugar (approximately 6 teaspoons). That’s about the same as two fun-sized packs of Skittles.
Applesauce is another option that is just as sweet but much lower in added sugar. Because apples are naturally sweet, applesauce doesn’t need as much sugar. Plus, apples are a low GI fruit that can help support metabolic health (more on this next). Applesauce is easy to make yourself at home, or you can purchase a low or no-sugar-added version from the grocery store to serve next to your turkey.
Thanksgiving isn’t complete without a delicious pie to end the evening. It would be a little cruel to tell you to skip the pie (or crisp), but the high dose of sugar in a single slice will likely send your blood sugar soaring.
Instead of a traditional apple pie or apple crisp (also high in saturated fats), make baked apples instead. Not only are apples part of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but also support weight loss due to their high fiber and water content. They are also high in antioxidants and pectin, which can help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and protect your gut. 8,9
For a healthier twist on apple crisp, cut apples in half and remove the core and seeds. Spoon a mixture of oats, cinnamon, flour, and a touch of brown sugar into the center. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until soft. Let them cool and enjoy!
What Other Ingredients Can Be Swapped?
So, what if you (and your family) really want to enjoy the mashy tatoes or savor your special cranberry sauce? You don’t have to nix your favorites altogether. Instead, try making a few healthy swaps in your recipes to support stable glucose throughout the day (it may be easier than you think!). Here are some easy glucose hacks:
- Go halfsies. If you want the potatoes but don’t want the glucose spikes that come with it, swap half your mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower. You can do the same with sweet potatoes and butternut squash.They are so similar in texture and flavor, you’ll be surprised how hard it is to tell the difference.
- Use sweetener instead of table sugar. Try swapping regular sugar with less spikey sweeteners, like monk fruit or allulose. Just remember that some sugar substitutes are a little sweeter than sugar, so you may need to adjust the amount used in your recipes.
- Choose whole grain. Whole-grain bread is a better option than traditional dinner rolls. It has a lower GI and provides fiber and some protein, which can help reduce a spike while still leaving you satisfied.
- Switch up the diary. While we love full-fat dairy, most dishes are already high in fat, which can push you over your daily fat intake pretty quickly. Try substituting cream, sour cream, or whole milk with a low-fat version or Greek yogurt to cut back on some fat without sacrificing flavor.
Monitor Your Glucose with Signos
What’s on your plate this holiday season can greatly impact your health. But there’s no need to stress! Just a few small swaps can make a significant difference in keeping your blood sugars stable so you can enjoy the holiday season.
A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) paired with the Signos app can help you see how your body responds to the foods you eat in real-time, and gives you suggestions on how to blunt a spike. Your CGM can help you make informed choices about what you eat to keep your blood sugars stable and reach your health goals while still enjoying your favorite holiday foods.
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