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A Healthy Feast: Thanksgiving Nutrition

November 1999

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in the United States. Every year we are reminded of the stories -- of Pilgrims and Indians, of apples and pumpkins, of the Plymouth Plantation . . . and of turkeys.

How much of what we learned as children is the truth and how much pretty myth? What does that holiday mean today? And nutritionally, is Thanksgiving an excuse for gluttony, or an opportunity to feast deliciously on foods that are actually good for us?

Celebrating the Harvest

The "first" Thanksgiving they told us about in grade school was actually nothing of the kind. People have been observing harvest thanksgivings for thousands of years. The ancient Romans held a yearly feast in October to thank Ceres, the goddess of agriculture (the word cereal is derived from her name), for a good harvest. They celebrated with parades, dances, music, games, and lots of food.

The Greeks honored Demeter, goddess of the harvest. The feast gave thanks for the ending harvest season and asked that Demeter grant a successful crop the following season. Celebrants offered fruits and pigs to their goddess, and a festive meal was part of the celebration.

The early Chinese harvest festival took place on about the 15th of August, or the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, and lasted three days. Families gave thanks and ate roasted pig, fresh fruits, and "moon cake" cookies. The cookies reminded them of their liberation from the enemies who had invaded their land and taken over their homes and food.

The Jews have celebrated a harvest festival every autumn for thousands of years. The feast is called Sukkoth and lasts for eight days. Sukkoth refers to the huts of biblical times, called succahs, which were used to store food and in which Moses and his followers lived in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.

Thanksgiving In Plymouth Plantation

The Pilgrims were English separatists who were dissatisfied with their church and decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1620 and settle in the New World. They landed in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island and founded the Plymouth Plantation in the town of Plymouth, about 34 miles southeast of Boston.

The Pilgrims brought with them some foods and seeds to plant, mainly wheat kernels, their main staple. Their grain did not grow well in the northeast, and they were not able to harvest enough food to last for the cold season. After that first winter, the Pilgrims were suffering from hunger and disease. Many had arrived already in poor condition after the long journey, and almost half of them had died by the time warmer weather came.

The Wampanoag Indians came to their rescue, welcoming them and bringing them food. The Native Americans the Pilgrims met were very different from the stereotype of the "American Indian" depicted in today's movies and television commercials. The long headdresses made of large numbers of feathers, the light clothing, and the teepees are actually more characteristic of the Great Plains Indians. The American Indians of the northeast, the Wampanoag and Iroquois, braided their hair and wore a single feather at the end of the one braid. They lived in wigwams that had straight walls and rounded roofs made from birch and elm trees, and they wore animal skins as clothing.

The Wampanoag Chief, Squanto, had been to England and could speak English well. Squanto and other members of his tribe introduced the Pilgrims to local foods and local plant medicines to treat their ailments. He taught them basic survival skills of the region, including how to identify poisonous plants and how to hunt.

Before the second winter, the Pilgrims had learned how to grow many local foods and had begun to succeed in growing the foods they had brought. They had learned to survive in the New World. There was plenty to harvest and store for the winter. They were healthier and happier. In celebration and gratitude, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to a feast of getting together and giving thanks.

Thanksgiving celebration was not new to the Indians. The Algonquin tribe in the region celebrated six thanksgiving festivals a year. Each one was to give thanks for a specific crop or crops or for food in general -- first the maple tree for its syrup, then the planting celebration with the blessing of the seeds, next the strawberries, then the corn, then the harvest of most of the foods, and last the winter crop.

That harvest celebration gave rise to a thanksgiving gathering that continued to be celebrated every year at the end of the harvest season.

There is, however, a sad and shameful epilogue to the story, one not so widely talked about or taught to children in the schools. As time passed and more Pilgrims arrived from England, ethnic, cultural, and especially religious differences between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans escalated and gave rise to fights between them. The very conservative and rigid Pilgrims wanted to impose their religion on the Indians. When religious conversion did not succeed, the Indians were persecuted and many of them were killed in what is known as King Philip's War. The Indians were forced to flee in order to survive and were widely dispersed all over neighboring lands. Today, descendants of the Wampanoag Indians still exist, but not as a tribe. Today, many Native Americans consider this country's official Thanksgiving a time of sorrow rather than of celebration.

But there was a time when natives and newcomers did celebrate togetherness, friendship, and thanksgiving in peace and harmony. And it was not only one day a year but a three-day feast. There was plenty of food, story telling, prayer, and fun.

The Foods

Many of the foods served at those early celebrations -- corn, pumpkin, berries, squash, sweet potatoes, apples, and maple syrup -- are still part of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Fish was also part of the meal. The fish was usually salted and the meat smoke cured.

Corn, which was unknown to the Europeans, was a staple of the natives here. Red, white, blue, and yellow corn was eaten fresh or dried and ground into a meal to make all kinds of puddings, breads, syrups, and dishes such as succotash and hominy. Every part of the plant was utilized. The kernels were eaten, and the husks were dried and used as fuel, fashioned into dolls, or braided together to make baskets, masks, and mats for sleeping. Toys and ceremonial rattles were made from the cobs. The Pilgrims adapted some of the recipes they had brought with them and used the cornmeal to make muffins, johnnycakes, and brown breads. Other foods new to the Pilgrims were pumpkins, different types of beans, and some squashes.

The Beverages

Because the water was not good to drink, most people drank beer, ale, or wines of various types. There were many types of berries around, so winemaking was common. Even children would drink some of these beverages to avoid the unhealthy water conditions.

Today, one of the traditional holiday beverages is eggnog. We suggest you buy a commercial eggnog that is pasteurized. If you make your own, use commercial pasteurized eggs. Never use raw eggs because of the risk of salmonella infection.

Apple juice and cider are other fall favorites that can be dangerous, especially to people with HIV. In their unpasteurized form, they have been linked to outbreaks of illnesses caused by E. coli bacteria and cryptosporidia. We recommend purchasing only pasteurized brands and only from stores. Avoid ciders or juices sold at roadside stands unless the labels indicate that they have been pasteurized.

Getting Dinner Ready

In many homes Thanksgiving dinner is the most popular meal of the year. It most often includes a turkey, and it's a meal that usually requires the observance of other traditions, some of them unique to a particular region or family, and some of them nearly universal. Being in charge of the meal takes a lot of work: planning the menu, making a shopping list, marketing, cooking, serving, and, finally, storing and using the inevitable leftovers.

While each step of the way gets you and your guests closer to that delicious meal, preparing the meal can be a demanding, even exhausting, process. But don't be tempted to take shortcuts when it comes to food safety. Being HIV-positive means you have to be extra cautious to avoid any food-borne bugs that might put a damper on the festivities. Start by washing your hands thoroughly before and after each step in preparing the meal, especially if you've been handling, for instance, raw poultry, and before and after eating. Also, make sure all fresh fruits and vegetables used for the meal are thoroughly washed. All those that can be peeled should be.

The great cutting board debate: You will undoubtedly be doing a lot of cutting, chopping, mincing, and slicing during the preparation of your meal. You can have two cutting boards, one for raw animal food and another for the rest. Or you can have just one cutting board, on which raw animal foods are cut last. Either way, we suggest you clean those boards with soap and water and sanitize them with a chlorine bleach solution. If there are deep gashes in the cutting board, spring for a new one and throw the old one out. Use the same bleach solution to clean counters and other surfaces and utensils that come in contact with raw foods.

The Menu

Planning the menu is always fun. And the good news is that traditional Thanksgiving fare is as nutritious as it is delicious. With a little forethought, you can indulge yourself and your guests and feel virtuous -- with good reason -- at the same time.

Let's look at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner:

  • Roast turkey with stuffing
  • Mashed white potatoes and/or sweet potatoes
  • Biscuits, and/or rolls, and/or or cornbread
  • A variety of vegetables -- corn, greens, string beans, carrots, beets, onions, etc.
  • Cranberries and/or other berries, pickles
  • Pumpkin, apple, and/or sweet potato pies

It reads like a list of Thanksgiving superfoods:

The yellow and orange foods, called carotenoids, are antioxidant-rich plant foods such as pumpkins, carrots, sweet potatoes, and yams. Rich in beta carotene, these fruits and vegetables supply between three and six times the Recommended Daily Value (formerly Recommended Daily Allowance) for vitamin A, absolutely essential for normal night vision and a healthy immune system.

The green foods -- spinach, collards, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens -- are more carotenoids with antioxidant power. They help prevent macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in the elderly.

Cruciferous vegetables such as turnips, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower contain amazing disease-fighting compounds called indoles and isothiocyanates that have been shown to ward off cancer. They are also loaded with vitamin C, folic acid, and fiber.

Cranberries, blueberries, and bilberries are all rich in vitamin C and a source of bioflavanoids called proanthocyanidins. The proanthocyanidins are responsible for the colors -- oranges, yellows, purples, blues, and reds -- in foods as well as in autumn leaves. One of the primary actions of the proanthocyanidins in that of an antioxidant. In plants they protect against free radical damage caused by ultraviolet light. In people they neutralize free radicals that would otherwise damage the body and contribute to degenerative diseases.

Research shows that cranberry juice is effective for the prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections caused by E.coli bacteria. It prevents the adherence of the bacteria to the wall of urinary tract. If the bacteria can't adhere, they can't reproduce and can't cause the infection. In essence the infection is stopped in its tracks. Cranberry extract works as well. Note: Cranberry juice "cocktail" is not effective.

Turkey is the main protein source if you eat meat. But other roast meats are also served as the main dish at Thanksgiving dinner. And don't forget fish; remember the Pilgrims included fish in their Thanksgiving celebrations. If a turkey is too large for your household, try fixing a whole chicken with stuffing.

Vegetarians have a lot of options too. Good protein is found in foods rich in soy (tofu, textured vegetable protein, tempeh) and seitan (wheat protein). It is also found in seeds, nuts, and legumes (dry beans, lentils, chickpeas).

If you are vegetarian -- or even if you're not but would like to try something different or in addition to the traditional meal -- try some of the stuffing variations on this page. They are different, interesting, very tasty, packed with many vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals -- and they look terrific!

You can use any of these stuffings to stuff your roast or other vegetables such as acorn or butternut squash, red or green peppers, eggplants, or large zucchinis. After all, the stuffing is a very important part of a Thanksgiving meal.

Follow the basic stuffing recipe or experiment and make your own combinations. Use your favorite mix to stuff vegetables, turkey, chicken, or other meat and vegetable roasts. Try to use whole-grain breads and cereals whenever possible; they are rich in fiber and the B vitamins that are not so abundant in simple carbohydrates (white and refined grains, cereals, flours, and starches). Brown and wild rice and millet are a source of some protein, magnesium, fiber and iron. Quinoa is particularly packed with protein and fiber and other nutrients. Seeds and nuts are good sources of protein and the good type of fats. Some are very rich in antioxidants too. Some good combinations are apples with walnuts, mushrooms and ginger with brown or wild rice, and lentils with barley or rice. And, of course, your favorite herbs and spices go with any combination.

Be creative and innovative! Have fun and add new foods to your Thanksgiving meal, some foods from Pilgrim days, some from your own ancestors, and some from the recipes presented here!


Meat, poultry, and fish have very distinctive and full flavors, and they add taste to vegetables and grains. Because of this, when preparing vegetarian dishes, you need to season a bit more than usual. That does not mean adding more salt and pepper. Use more garlic, ginger, sage, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and any other herb combinations that you like the taste of.

Most of these seasonings are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. They are healing and nutritious. Some have salicylates, the active ingredient in aspirin, and act as pain killers and antiinflammatory agents. Others are appetite enhancers, can lower blood sugar and cholesterol, or can help with nausea and stomach upsets. Some are even antimicrobial. And they all taste good!

Cooking a Turkey?

If you are going to prepare a turkey, follow the instructions on the packaging. If you are getting a fresh turkey, don't make your purchase any more than two days ahead, and store it in the refrigerator until it is time to put it in the oven. If your bird is frozen, give yourself three or four days to defrost it in the refrigerator to ensure safety. Never defrost a turkey (or anything else) on the counter at room temperature -- bacteria can grow and reproduce very rapidly. You can also defrost the turkey in a microwave or, if you are really pressed for time, you can run cold water over it in the sink. Avoid standing water, which is a breeding ground for microbes.

Always give yourself plenty of time to cook the turkey. Use a meat thermometer and insert it in the thickest part of the thigh, next to but not touching the bone. The turkey is done when the thermometer registers 180° to 185°F.

The safest turkey stuffing is one that is cooked separately. Stuffing inside the bird seems to be a breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Place it in a covered casserole and cook it in the oven with the turkey during the last hour of roasting time.

If you decide that stuffing the bird itself is a tradition that cannot be denied, do it safely. Stuff lightly, not packed tight; stuff right before putting the bird in the oven, and remove the stuffing right after it comes out. Eat it hot, refrigerate any leftovers immediately, and reheat them straight out of the refrigerator.

Having Cholesterol Concerns?

Opt for the white-meat turkey breast. It is a very good source of protein and low in the saturated fat that causes serum cholesterol levels to soar. Cooking with olive or canola oil also helps lower LDL, the bad cholesterol, and raise HDL, the good cholesterol. Don't use lots of butter, and avoid the turkey gravy unless you can defat it. Be liberal in your use of garlic, as it lowers cholesterol. If you are vegetarian, you're in luck! Soy protein helps to lower total serum cholesterol and LDL, and all plant foods have NO cholesterol or saturated fat!

Plant foods are wonderful sources of phytochemicals (those plant chemicals that ward off cancer and degenerative diseases), vitamins, and minerals. Onions, chives, shallots, and garlic have compounds that help to lower cholesterol. Make sure you include plenty of colorful vegetables in your meal. We've included some recipes, or use your own favorites.

High Blood Pressure Concerns?

It is wise to lower your overall intake of salt. Table salt is one form, but sodium comes disguised in lots of foods we eat every day, especially those convenient ready-to-eat foods. It is best to eat unprocessed foods as much as possible. Cooking from scratch gives you the edge -- you don't have to add salt to anything! There is natural sodium from the soil in all veggies, and animal protein has sodium in it too. A mild sodium restriction and eating lots of fruits and vegetables (for potassium and magnesium) and skim milk (for calcium) seem to lower blood pressure naturally. And remember to include some mushrooms, mainly shiitake; they help to lower blood pressure too.

Anybody Ready For Pie?

Make your dessert from antioxidant-rich plant foods, such as pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, and yams. You can easily buy all of these traditional pies ready to eat, or get the frozen kind you bake at home. Or you can try making something slightly different, like the recipes given here.

A word of warning: All recipes for pumpkin pie and other holiday favorites like layer cakes and puddings call for raw eggs. They act as binders and add an excellent source of high biological value protein to food. But eggs can also be a source of deadly bacteria if they are not cooked properly. It is very tempting to taste batters to make sure spices are just right. Trust your judgment and the recipe and wait until your dish comes out of the oven for that first taste. And remember to clean all surfaces and wash your hands thoroughly after touching raw eggs.

High Blood Sugar Concerns?

Here are some tips to help you keep blood sugar under control throughout Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season. You can forego sweet desserts in favor of fresh fruits, or you can serve both, mix and match, but eat just a very small portion of the sweetened dessert. Take advantage of all the fresh fruits in all the different colors -- many of them the color of the autumn leaves. All those colors have antioxidant power. Think of grapes, cranberries, other berries, apples, pears, oranges -- they are all loaded with disease-fighting nutrients.

Concentrated sweets or simple sugars, e.g., table sugar, honey, syrups, jellies, and jams are the main foods to avoid if you have diabetes. Desserts can be a little tricky, but try baked apples with nuts; to get the sweetness, add a sugar substitute after baking. Some sugar substitutes lose sweetness with heat. There are lots of sugar-free desserts on the market -- gelatins, puddings, and frozen desserts, as well as cookies and candies. Always read the labels to check for fats, sugars, fiber, and sodium. Eat carbohydrates in moderation. Keep in mind that the body can convert excess starches in the form of simple sugars or refined carbohydrates into triglycerides (body fats).


Since Thanksgiving means cooking a variety of different foods and in larger quantities than usual, you can really take advantage of the opportunity to store ready-made delicious food for another day.

It is tempting to leave food out after the meal so that you and your guests can continue nibbling all afternoon. This is not a good idea. Keeping hot food hot ensures that all food-borne pathogens are killed off. When foods cool down to room temperature, bacteria start to generate and reproduce.

Store your leftovers immediately after you're done with your holiday meal; don't let them sit around to start breeding bacteria. Cover those that will be eaten within the next day or two and refrigerate. If you plan to keep the food longer, save individual portions in separate containers, label, and freeze.

Leftover turkey makes wonderful sandwiches the next day. And you can make the same food look different and taste different in the days after Thanksgiving. Turkey and vegetables are delicious in casseroles, stir fries, sandwiches, salads, soups, and even burritos, tacos, and pies. Your only limit is your imagination.

So what is Thanksgiving to us today, anyway? We think it is a time to appreciate the many good things that have happened to us throughout the year. It's a time to stop and appreciate the things we normally take for granted, like air, water, trees, birds . . . and favorite foods, family, friends, and caregivers. If you're not sharing the holiday with family, get together with neighbors or friends and have fun preparing and eating the meal together. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish to make it. Even if you are dining alone, you can still make this a special day and a special meal for yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Rosa J. Donohue is a nutrition consultant with Iris House, St. Vincent's Hospital, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Community Food Resources Center, and Gay Men's Health Crisis. She divides her time between New York City and Geneva, Switzerland.

Back to the November 1999 issue of Body Positive magazine.

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

  • Email Email
  • Printable Single-Page Print-Friendly
  • Glossary Glossary

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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