By ERIN BRYANT, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Between the candy-induced sugar shock of Halloween and the belt-busting fare of Thanksgiving, November can be a rough month on American waistlines.
The good news is that a few simple culinary tricks and a healthy appreciation for portion control can help people eat nutritiously during Thanksgiving - and avoid the need for new trousers by the time December rolls around.
The recent media focus on trans fat has made the public particularly wary of what may be lurking in their holiday meal.
Found primarily in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and animal fats like Crisco and other shortenings, trans fat is a type of unsaturated fat that nutritionists say poses a particular health risk because it raises bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol - increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Officials in New York City, for example, are currently mulling over a possible trans fat ban in area restaurants. And recently, KFC announced the chain's decision to eliminate trans fat from its fried chicken.
Because of public health concerns, all food products were required to list their trans fat content starting in January 2006.
Margarine products without trans fat are now widely available and can be used as a butter substitute. Nutritionists recommend substituting trans fat-free margarine for butter in Thanksgiving favorites like mashed potatoes, baked goods and stuffing.
Paired with reduced-fat milk, trans fat-free margarine can be combined to make a more heart-healthy mashed potato dish.
Turkey Day need not be a dietary nightmare. Many holiday meal staples have actual nutritional value, according to Nancy J. Brenowitz, Dietetics Program Director of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland College Park, who encourages people to "eat white meat turkey."
Turkey is a lean meat high in protein and vitamins like phosphorus and niacin that support bone development and general health.
A single serving of roasted white meat turkey (about the size of a deck of playing cards) has 130 calories and 1 gram of total fat with very little saturated fat, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database.
For the particularly health-conscious, a free-range turkey has meat even lower in total calories, calories from fat and cholesterol than a store-bought bird.
David R. Smith, who grew up on the land where he now operates the all-natural Springfield Farm in Sparks, in Baltimore County, says the primary reason for their increased nutritional value is that the birds are able move around outside and get aerobic exercise.
The birds are able to eat grass and they're not exposed to the ammonia-filled environment of a turkey confined with its own manure, Smith said.
The hormone and antibiotic-free turkeys don't come cheap - at $3.50 to $5 a pound or about 5 to 10 times the price of a grocery-store turkey.
"Someone can drop $100 on Thanksgiving turkey in a heartbeat," Smith said.
On the other end of the turkey nutritional spectrum, dieticians have a word of advice.
"You want to roast your turkey instead of frying it," emphasized Constance M. Barnett, an educator in family and consumer sciences at the University of Maryland Cooperative extension in Dorchester County.
Deep-fried turkey is a southern novelty that has grown in popularity in other regions of the country.
Loaded with artery-clogging saturated fat, this bird can be bad for your homeowner's insurance as well - every year turkey fryers start hundreds of fires with a few houses burning to the ground according to the National Fire Protection Agency.
Chicken stock is also a healthy alternative for flavoring mashed potatoes instead of the cream and butter that can add loads of calories and saturated fat to the Thanksgiving staple, according to Brenowitz.
Gourmands worried that eliminating fat and calories will ruin their holiday mean need not fear, according to Barnett. Eating healthy doesn't have to mean a bland meal.
"Try using seasoning other than salt," Barnett said, to reduce sodium and kick up the flavor.
Vegetables are an important part of eating nutritiously year-round as well as on Thanksgiving.
"Choose more vegetables and more whole grain foods and less of the meat and the dairy. Those foods contain more saturated fat that fruits and grains," said Barnett.
"In the winter you have a lot of good seasonal vegetables," she said, citing sweet potatoes, squash and green beans as good bets.
Cranberries filled with antioxidants, nuts with iron and fiber and pumpkin, loaded with vitamin A, beta carotene, and vitamin C are also all good bets for holiday dining.
Skip the calorie-laden pumpkin pie crust though.
Ultimately, it may not be so much what people are eating on Thanksgiving but the quantities in which they are eating that proves their downfall in the holiday battle of the bulge.
"Truthfully, portion size has a lot to do with the whole big picture of American obesity," said Brenowitz.
On Thanksgiving, she says, "If we ate less, maybe watched the portion sizes on higher calorie foods like stuffing and desserts and ate bigger portions of white meat turkey and vegetables," weight gain wouldn't be such a problem.
To avoid overeating, Barnett suggests waiting twenty minutes after eating a reasonable portion of food for your brain to get the message.
"Even if you think you're still hungry get up and walk around - nine times out of ten, you'll find that you're full."
And eating healthfully doesn't mean completely nixing the goodies - in moderation.
"If you are going to eat something very rich, eat as slowly as possible and pay attention to the food as you eat it," said Barnett.
"You'll find a little bit goes a long way in making you feel good," she said.
On a holiday that has become synonymous with overindulgence, what should someone do if he or she has gone overboard?
"Eat very lightly the next day and don't beat yourself up. Have a salad the next day and it balances out," said Barnett.
Exercise is also critical. "Go out. Take a walk," said Brenowitz. "Release some anxiety because you're stressed about being stuck with your family all day."