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Health Information Go Green This Thanksgiving

Add nutrients, flavor to your holiday meal with leafy greens.

There's been a lot of talk about making cities, buildings and cards more "green." But how about making your diet greener by enjoying a heaping helping of leafy green vegetables such as arugula, romaine lettuce, mesclun mix (or "spring mix"), spinach, kale, collard, turnip and mustard greens, watrecress, chard, broccoli rabe and Chinese broccoli? With so many options, it's easy to make leafy greens a more prominent part of your plate — and there's no better time to do so than the holiday season, when rich, sugary foods tend to dominate family meals, buffets and party menus.

Packing a nutritious punch

"Green, leafy vegetables are a must-have this Thanksgiving since they give you a bigger 'bang for your buck': They are nutrient-dense but not energy-dense (higher in calories), so you get all the benefits of vitamins, minerals and fiber without all the calories," says Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, a dietitian and lifestyle program director for the Rush University Prevention Center.

How nutritious are they? For starters, they're high in antioxidants such as vitamin A and vitamin C, and rich in vitamin K, potassium and iron. They also serve as a great source of fiber. "These nutrients provide many benefits, such as boosting the immune system during those cold winter months and keeping the heart healthy," Ventrelle says. "They may even work toward cancer prevention."

An added bonus: The natural fiber in leafy greens can help you feel satisfied longer because the nutrients remain in the stomach longer with the fiber. That satisfied feeling can also lead to decreased overall caloric consumption and, potentially, weight loss.

The more veggies, the better

Ideally, vegetables should make up the majority of your plate. A good rule of thumb is for half of the plate to be vegetables, with the other half left for equal parts protein and healthy carbohydrates. You should devote a quarter of the plate to green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or a simple salad, and another quarter to other vegetables, such as grilled peppers, asparagus, peas, green beans or squash. It's a good idea to start your meal by eating vegetables so you'll have less of an appetite for rich, sugary foods.

But be careful how you prepare those veggies, Ventrelle warns. "One thing to be aware of when boiling vegetables is that the vitamins can leach out into the water," she says. "So whenever possible, eat vegetables raw or lightly steamed rather than cooking them immersed in water."

Other advice for healthier preprations: If you do sauté vegetables, choose olive oil and try not to use much more than a tablespoon; rather than drowning vegetables in butter or heavy sauces, cut back on the fat and make them delicious by dressing them with dried or fresh herbs, spices, balsamic vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice; and try grating the rind of a citrus fruit, such as lime or orange, into your recipe for some extra zest. 

Give thanks … for leafy greens

Here are some ideas for incorporating leafy greens into your Thanksgiving menu:

  • For an appetizer everyone will love, stuff button mushroom caps with sautéed spinach and top with a light sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
  • Start the feast with a fresh romaine or mesclun salad — and to incorporate the Thanksgiving theme, add some dried cranberries and/or crushed pecans. Or, try pairing peppery arugula with sweet figs or cherry tomatoes for a tasty salad with a festive holiday touch.
  • Instead of serving butternut squash soup, whip up a refreshing watercress soup. It will add both color — a vibrant green — and nutrients to your meal.
  • Make your traditional stuffing greener by adding kale, broccoli rabe or mustard greens.
  • Serve up a side dish of spinach, kale or collard greens. Sauté the greens in canola or sunflower oil and add light seasoning (pepper, garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon, etc.).
  • Fresh spinach and chard also make great salads, if you're looking for an alternative to lettuce. These flavorful, vitamin-rich greens pair well with a myriad of nuts, fruits and other veggies. Just be sure to keep the dressing light.
  • Add finely chopped broccoli rabe or spinach to Arborio rice to create a hearty risotto the whole family will love.

New life for leftovers

Leafy greens are also great for jazzing up your Thanksgiving leftovers. Try topping your turkey sandwiches with a handful of fresh spinach or arugula, whip up a turkey-kale casserole, or use broccoli rabe or Chinese broccoli to create a flavorful turkey stir-fry. The possibilities — and recipes — are endless, and not just around holiday time.

"If you aren't already eating a lot of leafy green vegetables, the holidays are a great time to start," says Ventrelle. "You may be so surprised by how satisfied you feel; you won't have as much room to over-indulge on those not-so-great-for-you rich, sugary foods. Save those for a special holiday treat and pack in the leafy greens for a happier, healthier holiday season."

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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November 2012


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