Healthy Eating: A thanksgiving leftover

Find out the truth behind your favorite holiday meats, sweets and other post-thanksgiving treats.

vegetables 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
vegetables 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Sweet Potatoes and Yams are the same…FALSE
Could you pass the yams? Could you please pass the sweet potatoes? Who knows what is being passed around the dinner table right? With these two often being interchanged, with some families referring to the orange root vegetable as a sweet potato and others calling them yams, they are by no means the same thing. In fact, yams and sweet potatoes aren’t even related! To make matters even more confusing, what most people in western countries commonly refer to as yams, are in fact sweet potatoes. So what is the root cause of this food mix up?
Before digging through history to find the origin of this confusion, it is important to take a closer look at what exactly are sweet potatoes and what exactly are yams. An orange or yellow tuber vegetable, sweet potatoes are native to the southern part of America. Sweet potatoes traditionally come in two different varieties. The first has a paler skin, and a pale yellow flesh that resembles the dry texture similar to that of a white baking potato. The second has a darker orange to reddish skin and a deep orange, sweet flesh as well as a moist texture, which is where the yam confusion comes from, as when most of us picture a yam that is what comes to mind. So if that is a sweet potato, what is a yam? Native to Africa, Asia and other tropical regions, yams are starchy tubers that have an almost black bark-like skin and white, red or even purple flesh and come in many different varieties. The tubers can be as small as regular potatoes or grow to be as a big as 7-feet long! On top of this, most people in western countries have most likely never seen a real yam. So what is the source of all this confusion? Many years ago, when orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced to the southern United States, producers desired to distinguish them from the more traditional, white-fleshed sweet potatoes. The African slaves at that time had already been referring to these ‘soft’ sweet potatoes ‘yams’ as they resembled the root vegetable consumed in Africa. Thus, ‘soft’ sweet potatoes were dubbed ‘yams’ to distinguish them from the firmer varieties. So now that this mix-up has been sorted out, what can sweet potatoes and yams do for you?
As an orange vegetable, sweet potatoes are of course abundant in none other than beta-carotene. A carotenoid that is not only a pre-cursor to vitamin A, but also acts as a powerful anti-oxidant, riding the body of harmful free radicals that can lead to cancer and cardiovascular disease. On top of this, snacking on sweet potatoes may help your skin stay clear, as Vitamin A stimulates the body to produce new skin cells and to shed old ones. Moreover, while they may be called sweet potatoes, and they do indeed taste sweeter hat regular white potatoes, sweet potato have a positive effect on blood sugar levels. Unlike its white potato counter-part, sweet potatoes do not raise blood sugar. In fact, studies have found that consuming this orange tuber may actually contribute to blood sugar regulation (even for people who suffer from type II diabetes). Now unlike sweet potatoes, yams are not loaded with cancer fighting Beta-Caratone nor do they help to regulate blood sugar levels. Instead, yams may exhibit positive effects on the cardiovascular system as they are considered to be an excellent source of Vitamin B6, a vitamin needed by the body to break up homocysteine – a substance that has been linked with an increased rate of heart disease as it damages blood vessel walls. Yams are also a good source of potassium, a mineral needed to maintain PH balance as well as control blood pressure. However, watch out as yams, unlike sweet potatoes, are toxic if eaten raw!
Turkey is higher in protein than chicken…TRUE
While chicken and turkey may look similar, when it comes to what these two white meats can do for you, chicken has nothing on turkey. For starters, the star of this past Thanksgiving meal is packed with good old protein – offering an impressive 32 grams of protein by 4-oz serving (in other words, 65% of one’s daily recommended intake of this macronutrient). On top of this, unlike most red meats, a 4 oz serving of turkey offers less than 12% of one’s daily-recommended allowance of saturated fat. While we generally do not hear much about the vitamin and mineral content outside the produce domain, you are going to hear about it when it comes to turkey!
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An excellent source of many of the B-vitamins, most notably Vitamins B3 and B6, turkey is also rich in selenium - a trace mineral essential for proper thyroid and immune function. Another rumor surrounding turkey, is that it makes you a tad bit, ok a lot, sleepy. Now this rumor is not without any support. Turkey is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep patterns, as well as mood and appetite. However, while Turkey is known for making one tired, it is worth mentioning that many other foods, such as chicken and cheese contain as much or even more tryptophan than turkey. So while the high amounts of amino acid may contribute to feeling drowsy, our desire to sleep following a Thanksgiving meal or any other large meal containing turkey is more likely due to the massive amounts of food we have just consumed.
Cranberries cure UTIs…FALSE
Many of us have heard that drinking cranberry juice can cure those painful (and annoying) UTIs. Now while this may sound like an old wives tale, there is some truth behind this health myth. While cranberries do not cure urinary track infections, per se, munching on these berries or sipping some cranberry juice may provide some protection against developing this irritating ailment. So what gives cranberries this preventative power? For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries to help prevent urinary tract infections was due in part to the fruit’s strong acidity; however, recent research has now revealed it's not the acidity of the cranberry, but rather the unusual nature of its proanthocyanidins.
The special structure of this compound, acts as a barrier preventing bacteria from latching onto the urinary tract lining and causing an infection. With this new revelation, researchers are exploring more of cranberries benefits – including whether this berry may provide some protection against stomach ulcers. While these health benefits still remain under investigation, it is known that cranberries are rich in many phytonutrients recognized for their anti-oxidant and anti-cancer properties. On top of this, the phytonutrients found in cranberries have been shown to help to increase HDL (good) cholesterol while simultaneously reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as help to alleviate inflammation in blood vessels, thereby assisting in reducing blood pressure.