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Let’s Talk Turkey…… and Pumpkins – Their History and The Health Benefits of Both

November is here and for most of us we instantly think of the traditional Thanksgiving holiday, falling leaves and food, such as turkey and pumpkin pie. These two have been linked for centuries as celebratory foods long before they were considered healthy. For this month’s article, we will be talking about the amazing, often overlooked health benefits of turkey and pumpkin.  Health benefits that we can partake of all year around, not just at Thanksgiving or during the holidays. On a personal note, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all and holds some very special memories of family dinners, travels out of state to have Thanksgiving with relatives and of course, fantastic fall weather.

In traditional fashion, let’s start off with the definition of Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving, the act of giving thanks; a public acknowledgment or celebration of goodness.  I would be remiss to not include a short history of how we Americans came to know Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin desserts.  According to historians, the first celebration of Thanksgiving in America can be traced to the well-recorded 1619 event in Charles City County, Virginia with thirty-eight English settlers.  The most talked about Thanksgiving that we know through school history class is the 1621 fall celebration by the Puritans who had emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1620. The 1621 celebration is called the official “First Thanksgiving” and has been an American tradition with varying changes to it for the past 399 years.

With some background established, let’s jump right into the main course, yes, with pun intended.  Turkey and pumpkin, forever linked together through tradition, but also linked in another way in that both are very healthy foods.  Starting with turkey, here are some facts about the wild or domestic turkey.  Scientific name Meleagris gallopavo, is the largest and most distinctive members of the Galliformes, a group of birds which includes grouse, pheasants and partridges.  Males can normally weigh up to 25 lbs. with hens being much smaller, averaging up to about 12 lbs. Wild turkeys mostly eat vegetable matter like acorns, nuts, seeds and leaves. They were plentiful when the settlers first arrived to our American shores and quickly became a staple food source.  Turkey meat is actually a valuable source of protein as well as other nutrients like vitamins, iron, calcium and minerals. When it comes to a healthy and well-balanced diet, turkey is considered to be the best and the healthiest.  By eating a meal of turkey meat, you are providing your body with vitamins B3/B6 (great for helping to control insomnia), B12, niacin (may help increase your HDL cholesterol, the good kind), choline (an essential nutrient/vitamin), selenium and zinc.  Along with these many components, you are also pampering your body with less calories and fats.  Turkey breast, specifically skinless, is the best part to eat and is low in fat allowing you to eat a lot without having to worry about your weight. The most amazing thing about eating skinless turkey breast is that you will get no carbs because it is free of them!!! It does contain calories and all of them come from the fat. The protein content from skinless turkey breast is even higher than the same portion and condition of chicken, making turkey a great option for a rich protein source. Protein helps your body resist cravings, reducing your appetite and keeps you full longer.

Next, pumpkins are a cultivar of winter squash that belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family (gourd family which includes melons and cucumbers).  Pumpkins are round with smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and is most often deep yellow to orange in coloration. They are native to North America and are one of the oldest domesticated plants, having been used as early as 7,500 to 5,000 BC.  Early peoples cultivated many varieties of the cucurbits family and they were among the earliest cultivated plants in both the Old and New Worlds.  While commonly viewed as a vegetable, pumpkin is scientifically a fruit, as it contains seeds. That said, it’s nutritionally more similar to vegetables than fruits. Some of the nutrition and health benefits of pumpkin are that it is highly nutritious and particularly rich in vitamin A. A single cup of cooked pumpkin has 245% of the daily intake for vitamin A. Studies show that vitamin A can strengthen your immune system and help fight infections.  It is very low in calories and fat, high in protein, fiber, vitamin C, B12 and E as well as potassium and copper. With it being so nutrient-dense, it may promote weight loss. Pumpkins contain antioxidants, such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. Carotenoids are fierce pigments that multitask to keep you healthy.  They gobble (pun intended) up harmful free radicals and reduce inflammation, a known culprit in many chronic diseases, including heart disease, colitis and asthma. They also prevent the buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries that can lead to heart disease and stroke.  Carotenoids are also a natural sunblock. Once ingested, carotenoids are transported to various organs including your skin. Here they help protect skin cells against damage from harmful UV rays.  So, when you think about it, pumpkin is a superfood and one you can feel really good about eating at Thanksgiving or all year long.

Lastly, I know that we all think and say it every year after each holiday meal, “I am so full, no leftovers for me”!! That feeling that we all have after eating turkey and pumpkin (most often pumpkin pie, which can be low fat/low sugar for 85 calories a slice) at the holidays. But think of the health benefits for having that leftover turkey and pumpkin pie, well worth having more often than just once or twice a year!! – The Nurse

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