Cocktail parties, cookie platters and multiple family feasts can turn this holiday season into a dieter’s nightmare. In fact, the average Thanksgiving dinner adds up to more than 3,000 calories. Fortunately, some of the most traditional seasonal offerings actually turn out to be nutrition heroes.

Brussels sproutsAs a cruciferous veggie they contain compounds that may have a role in the body’s own natural defenses. One lab study found that Brussels sprouts’ indole-3-carbinol may help inhibit tumor growth. A serving of Brussels sprouts provides over 100% of your daily vitamin C (which promotes collagen formation to help you maintain those cherubic cheeks).

Sweet potatoesOff-the-charts beta-carotene content — providing 377% of your daily vitamin A needs per serving. In addition to promoting eye health, some research shows beta-carotene may help boost bone health and give skin a healthy glow.

CranberriesContain compounds that may help prevent urinary tract infections. Cranberries also offer 25% daily vitamin C, 20% manganese and 20% fiber needs per cup.

PumpkinIn addition to serving as an excellent source of eye-healthy vitamin A pumpkin also serves as a top source of alpha-carotene, a compound linked to lower lung cancer risk in preliminary studies. Beta-cryptoxanthin, another pumpkin carotenoid, was also found to have potentially protective benefits against lung cancer in a research review by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Pecans: Though usually overshadowed by healthy nut headliners like almonds and walnuts, pecans actually come out on top in terms of polyphenol activity. Like other nuts, pecans contain healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which may contribute to their heart health benefits. But pecans are unique in their high amounts of naturally occurring gamma tocopherol – a potent form of vitamin E that may promote prostate and intestinal health.

Don’t go negating the health benefits of holiday foods with unhealthy meal preparation. You can cut fat content and calories (while increasing your fiber intake) by partially substituting butter with applesauce or pureed plums.

Put a brake on the gravy train by letting drippings congeal in the fridge, skimming it of fat then reheating the rest before serving. You can also turn stuffing into a health food by adding extra onions (a top source of fiber), carrots, beans, wild rice or dried fruit. 

Published November 5, 2012