A calorie reality check

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health is sharing a list of calorie counts for traditional Turkey Day foods.

Three ounces of turkey, with skin? That’s 156 calories, which would take 44 minutes of walking to burn off. A half-cup serving of mashed potatoes is 119 calories. Gravy? That’s another 18 calories per tablespoon.

The numbers come from a giant database maintained by the Nutrition Coordinating Center at the U of M’s School of Public Health. The database has been around for 35 years and is the only one like it in the United States. It lists calories, nutrients and other nutritional information for more than 18,000 foods and 7,000 brand-name products. Updated information each year helps ensure it remains current .

The old saying “you are what you eat” is right on the mark when it comes to the health implications of diet and nutrition. The initial purpose of the database was to support food coding and analysis for research programs on the impact of diet on conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

One of the major contributions of the database to nutritional science has been to standardize the methodology, making it easier for researchers to accurately analyze menus, recipes and food records. If researchers want to know the nutritional composition of chicken soup, for instance, they can consult the database. Ditto for information on specific brands of infant formula or miniature vs. king-sized candy cars.

So it’s safe to say that when the School of Public Health lists calorie counts, you can be certain they’re backed up by rigorous measurement.

The Thanksgiving menu they’ve shared includes all the familiar standbys, from stuffing and cranberry sauce to Jell-O, green bean casserole, candied sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. If you consumed all 16 items in the amounts listed, it would amount to a whopping 3,300 calories – well beyond the recommended daily amount for an adult. It would take you 939 minutes of walking to burn them off.

As you might guess, dessert is the highest in calories. A slice of pecan pie contains the most, 526 calories. The least? Pumpkin pie, at 316 calories (whipped cream not included). I was surprised to discover that stuffing packs more calories (214 for a half-cup serving) than the turkey itself. On the other hand, it was reassuring to learn that half a cup of green bean casserole contains only 96 calories, which can be burned off with a 27-minute walk after dinner.

Does this mean you should skip Thanksgiving dinner, or feel guilty for having dessert? Not at all; the key, says Lisa Harnack, director of the U of M Nutrition Coordinating Center, is to have a little bit of everything rather than a whole of everything. Her advice: “A wonderful variety of great-tasting foods is one of the highlights of holiday gatherings. So, take advantage without overindulging by exerting portion control. With a dab of this and a dab of that you can keep on the right track.”

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