There’s much to be thankful for, including gratitude for a strong immune system that protects us from the cold and flu and other chronic diseases and health risks. Unfortunately, many of the festivities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday season weaken our immune system and sabotage our health. For example, did you know that the average American eats a whopping 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day, and an extra 30 grams of sugar during Thanksgiving dinner (and that’s before the dessert!). Thankfully, there are secret immune-boosting ingredients that are prominent during this holiday season. Focus on these foods when you’re whipping up your Thanksgiving feast, and your immune system will thank you.
4 Popular Immune-Boosting Ingredients in Your Thanksgiving Dinner
Sure, there may not be many redeeming health qualities in a rich custard pie or a decadent, fat-heavy whipping cream or gravy bowl. But certain ingredients that star prominently in many traditional Thanksgiving dishes actually do a lot of good for your immune system. Simple tweaks to how you use these ingredients, and even how you use up your Thanksgiving leftovers, can make all the difference.
Now, turkey might not be one of the most secret immune-boosting ingredients — after all, it’s usually the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving celebrations — but it has many surprising nutritional qualities that you might not be aware of!
Turkey is a good source of lean, low-calorie protein, which is essential for the repair and maintenance of tissues in the body. Protein is also crucial for the production of enzymes, hormones, and antibodies in your immune system. If you make protein the main focus of your plate during dinner, you’ll also keep your blood sugar balanced and be less tempted to fill up on more unhealthy Thanksgiving side dishes.
Turkey isn’t just rich in protein, but also several important nutrients, including B vitamins (especially B3 and B6), phosphorus, and selenium. These nutrients play various roles in maintaining overall health, such as supporting energy metabolism and antioxidant defense. For example, turkey is particularly rich in selenium, a mineral with antioxidant properties. Selenium is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system and thyroid gland.
And as many people know, turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to mood regulation and sleep.
2. Turkey Bones
Don’t discard that giant turkey carcass after you’re done with Thanksgiving! Boil it down into a bone broth, and you’ve got an incredible, nourishing broth that’s chockful of secret immune-boosting ingredients.
Bone broth is made by simmering the turkey bones, marrow, and connective tissues, which release various nutrients into the broth. These include minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, as well as collagen, gelatin, and amino acids. These nutrients play essential roles in supporting overall health, including immune function.
Bone broth is often touted for its potential immune system benefits due to its rich nutrient content. While more research is needed to fully understand the extent of these benefits, bone broth may contribute to your immune health in numerous ways:
- Collagen and Gelatin: Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is a major component of connective tissues. When collagen is broken down during the cooking process, it forms gelatin. Both collagen and gelatin contain amino acids, including glycine, proline, and arginine, which may support immune function.
- Amino Acids: Bone broth contains various amino acids that are important for the production of proteins in the body. Amino acids such as glycine, arginine, and proline may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, potentially supporting the immune system.
- Gut Health: The health of your gut is closely linked to your immune system (get free gut-health recipes here!). Bone broth contains gelatin, which may help support the integrity of the gut lining. A healthy gut lining is important for preventing the entry of harmful substances and promoting the absorption of nutrients, both of which are crucial for a well-functioning immune system.
- Minerals: Bone broth is a source of minerals like zinc and selenium, which are known to play important roles in immune function. Zinc, in particular, is involved in the development and function of immune cells (read more about how zinc impacts your immunity here!).
- Hydration: Staying well-hydrated is essential for overall health, including immune function, and bone broth is a great way to maintain hydration levels.
Cranberries are packed with antioxidants, including flavonoids and polyphenols. These compounds help combat oxidative stress in the body, which is linked to various chronic diseases and the aging process.
For instance, some studies suggest that regular consumption of cranberry products may help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. Other studies demonstrate how the antioxidants in cranberries have anti-inflammatory effects, which may be beneficial in reducing inflammation throughout the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with various health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
And of course, cranberries are a good source of immune-enhancing vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, manganese, and fiber. Vitamin C is essential for the immune system and collagen production, while manganese plays a role in bone formation and metabolism.
When you want to enjoy cranberries during Thanksgiving, keep in mind that cranberry products such as juices often contain added sugars. Choose whole cranberries or opt for unsweetened cranberry products when possible.
4. Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts are a nutrient-dense cruciferous vegetable and a good source of essential nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, folate, manganese, and potassium. These nutrients play critical roles in immune function, blood clotting, vision, and overall health.
Brussels sprouts are also high in fiber, promoting digestive health by supporting regular bowel movements and preventing constipation. The fiber content also helps in maintaining a healthy weight by promoting satiety (put simply, you won’t overeat during Thanksgiving!) and can even help balance your blood sugar when you indulge in Thanksgiving desserts.
Some studies even suggest that the compounds found in Brussels sprouts, such as glucosinolates, may have cancer-fighting properties. These compounds may help protect against certain types of cancers, such as colorectal and lung cancer.
Last but not least, those same glucosinolates may aid in the body’s detoxification processes by helping to activate enzymes that help neutralize and eliminate potentially harmful substances.
To maximize the health benefits of Brussels sprouts this Thanksgiving, cook them in ways that preserve their nutritional content, such as steaming, roasting, or sautéing.