At the center of your holiday table, there will probably be a bird – be it turkey, duck, goose or pheasant. But, did you know, the side dishes sprinkled around it include several foods that are ranked among the healthiest on the planet? Look for the rich orange colored sweet potatoes, pumpkin and squash and you’ll be rewarded with ample quantities of carotenoids … as well as eating pleasure.
Precursors of vitamin A, carotenoids are deep orange, yellow or red compounds that protect plants from sun damage and help attract birds and insects for pollination. Eat foods high carotenoids, and you could be protecting yourself against heart disease and some degenerative aspects of aging.
Sweet potatoes are … sweet. But, the taste is natural. It’s overkill when you bake them with maple syrup and marshmallows as “candied yams.” When they aren’t dressed to resemble dessert, sweet potatoes actually help regulate – or even improve – your blood sugar, even if you have diabetes.
People with diabetes usually have lower-than-normal blood levels of adinopectin, a protein hormone produced by fat cells. And some studies have found that sweet potato extracts are capable of significantly increasing blood levels of adinopectin.
The most important health benefit of the sweet potato, however, is its ability to deliver high levels of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. According to research, there is enough vitamin A in a 3.5 ounce serving of sweet potato to meet 35 to 90 percent of your daily need. Vitamin A is particularly beneficial to the eyes and skin.
Sweet potatoes are also high in vitamins C, D and B6 and have important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities.
The winter harvest at your local farmer’s market includes butternut, acorn, Hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling, kabocha and turban squash – plus various types of pumpkin. Select your favorite, take it to the kitchen, peel off the hard outer shell, and you’ll find the bright orange color that suggests it’s teeming with carotenoids. Winter squash is one of the best food sources of alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin-carotenoids with strong antioxidant potential.
Two important antioxidants in butternut squash are lutein and zeaxanthin, both protective against eye problems such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Acorn squash is another popular option. Compared to sweet potato and butternut squash, acorn squash provides less vitamin A, but delivers 35 percent of the body’s daily requirement of vitamin C. All three foods are high in fiber, potassium and magnesium.
Pumpkin pie is likely to be the finale of your Thanksgiving meal. Sugar and butter aren’t health foods, but at least the pumpkin is healthy.
Pumpkin is a type of winter squash, high in alpha-carotenoids, potassium, fiber and all the other good stuff mentioned above. The filling for pumpkin pie typically comes straight from a can, and that’s a good thing because canned pumpkin is one of the healthiest processed foods you can buy – better even than fresh pumpkin.
The process involves pureeing the pumpkin and boiling it down to remove the excess water. The result is the reduced, concentrated goodness of the pumpkin. Canned pumpkin is low in calories, high in fiber and nutrients and rich in flavor. A wedge of pumpkin pie is only about 315 to 330 calories – relatively low for any dessert.
Pumpkin pie has become popular a Thanksgiving dessert for the same reason that sweet potatoes and winter squash have become staples of the regular holiday menu. The rich, orange color reflects the tenor of the fall harvest, as well as providing a cornucopia of good nutrition.