In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims, who had arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the year before, and the Native Americans who befriended them came together to share the fruits of their first harvest in the New World. This feast, which we now call the first Thanksgiving, was based on foods that are native to New England—and are still part of our Thanksgiving celebrations today.
I raised my children near my cardiology practice in Connecticut, and we enjoyed exploring the neighboring states and sampling the local fare. Cape Cod, for instance, is known for its cranberry bogs, and apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and cornfields are plentiful throughout the Northeast.
A 2021 version of the original Thanksgiving feast is “eating local.” From Connecticut to Vermont, we Nor’easters are blessed to have access to many farmer’s markets that offer fresh, seasonal, locally purveyed crops—not to mention the turkeys that have been scampering in and out of the woods since August.
Autumn Harvest’s Bountiful Health Benefits
Even if you don’t have access to the local bounty of New England’s autumn harvest, your Thanksgiving meal will likely feature many of the seasonal foods that were enjoyed that first Thanksgiving.
The following is a list of my favorite healthy Thanksgiving foods:
- Apples: There’s some truth to the old saying, “An apple a day…” In addition to fiber, manganese, potassium, and vitamins A, B-complex, C, and K, apples are a good source of quercetin, which has been shown to lower blood pressure and protect against respiratory infections. All kinds of apples are great, but green apples have a slight nutritional edge.
- Brussels sprouts: A cold weather superfood, Brussels sprouts provide a bounty of fiber and vitamins C, B1, and B6, plus minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and small amounts of iron. Like other cruciferous vegetables, they also contain glucosinolates, which help ward off viral and bacterial infections and protect against cancer.
- Corn: Corn is a good source of protein, fiber, and numerous vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins C, B1, and folate. It also contains a lot of starchy carbohydrates, which can rapidly drive up blood sugar. Eating it in moderation is perfectly fine, but if you have diabetes or metabolic syndrome, go easy on corn.
- Cranberries: What would Thanksgiving be without cranberries? These antioxidant-rich berries enhance immune function, support healthy blood pressure, and lower the risk of urinary tract infections.
- Green beans: Another Thanksgiving favorite, green beans are chock full of antioxidants such as vitamins C and A as well as fiber, vitamin K, kaempferol, quercetin, and other flavonoids.
- Onions: I can’t say enough good things about onions. Raw or cooked, they’re a great source of antioxidants, fiber, and minerals. One of nature’s best sources of quercetin—which is better absorbed in foods than in supplements—onions are also rich in cancer-fighting sulfur compounds. In addition, they contain inulin and FOS, which are prebiotics that support the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
- Potatoes: Like corn, potatoes contain a lot of carbohydrates, so if you are struggling with blood sugar control, you need to go easy on them. Yet, potatoes are actually quite nutritious. High in manganese and vitamins C, B6, and folate, they also provide reasonable amounts of protein and fiber. Enjoy in moderation.
- Pumpkin: For many people, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a slice of pumpkin pie—but don’t limit your pumpkin consumption to pie. This winter squash is a cornucopia of nutrients and is particularly rich in beta-carotene, a potent antioxidant that protects against cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and macular degeneration.
- Sweet potatoes/yams: These brightly colored root vegetables are also loaded with beta-carotene, along with calcium, fiber, and vitamins A, B6, B12, and C. They’re like a potato with a boost of nutritious carotenoids and flavonoids!
- Tea: For a beverage, I recommend tea. My wife, who drinks black tea every day, likes the gentle caffeine boost that tea provides because it isn’t as jolting as coffee. Plus, tea is rich in quercetin, EGCG, L-theanine, and other health-enhancing phytonutrients.
Enjoy—and as always, portion size and moderation are key.