14 Unhealthiest Thanksgiving Sides To Avoid This Year

Thanksgiving dinner spread
Thanksgiving dinner spread - Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

Listen, some of us don't make up for the overindulgence on Thanksgiving. We don't hit the gym extra hard the week after, nor do we fast or go on a cleanse the entire month of November leading up to the gluttonous feast each Thanksgiving. The only way to survive Thanksgiving is to pick your battles and when it comes to which sides to indulge on, we've got it figured out.

Many of the traditional Thanksgiving sides like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy aren't doing much for your health. However, we aren't going to tell you to not eat stuffing. That would be ludicrous. Instead, we've found that not all these side dishes are completely unhealthy by nature. In their most traditional form, many of these dishes can be high in sugar, fat, or carbs, but there's almost always a lower-calorie alternative you can opt for. Based on the opinions and advice of nutrition experts, we've picked out the 14 most unhealthy sides served at Thanksgiving. Instead of one of these this year, try one of our nutritious alternatives instead.

Read more: 15 Tips For Making The Best Meatloaf

Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet potatoes with marshmallows
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows - Foodio/Shutterstock

Sweet potatoes are sweet. It's right there in the name. In their most popular form on the Thanksgiving dinner table, they're served in what is charitably referred to as a casserole. Sweet potatoes are tossed in brown sugar and topped with marshmallows to make this cloying Thanksgiving classic. The sweet potato casserole is so sweet it could easily be considered a dessert, and yet it's always served alongside the main course.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, an excess amount of added sugar in your diet can be one of the quickest on-ramps to heart disease, and there's no Thanksgiving dish more excessively sweet than the sweet potato casserole. Besides, using the right techniques and a few natural ingredients, it's easy to prepare an alternative dish. Sweet potatoes simply don't need all the added sugar. Instead of using brown sugar and marshmallows, try simply roasting your sweet potatoes with cinnamon and other fall spices. Even just adding a dash of maple syrup to sweeten things up will be a much healthier option.

Green Bean Casserole

homemade green bean casserole
homemade green bean casserole - from my point of view/Shutterstock

Green beans are healthy, but that's not enough for Americans on Thanksgiving. Everything needs to be served gussied up and in a casserole dish. That's eternally true about this dish, one made by adding green beans to a can of cream of mushroom soup and then topping the whole thing with crispy onions before baking it. It's a tasty dish and a good way to get some veggies in during the Thanksgiving meal, but here's why you should probably just opt for regular green beans instead.

The condensed cream of mushroom soup most green bean casserole recipes call for adds a high level of sodium to this vegetable dish. If you're buying the most popular brand, Campbell's, a single can of condensed soup contains a heaping 2,150 milligrams of sodium. It's best to avoid too much salt in our diets, as this can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. For a heart-healthy side, try simply boiling some green beans instead, and serving them topped with just a little unsalted butter.

Ambrosia Salad

ambrosia salad with cherries on top
ambrosia salad with cherries on top - Alleko/Getty Images

Sometimes just called Ambrosia, we're putting this "salad" in scare quotes from now on for a reason. This old-fashioned Southern tradition is a take on a fruit salad that always contains citrus with whipped cream and marshmallows. Often you'll see it come out during the holidays, on Christmas, or if you're unlucky, on Thanksgiving too.

During the Civil War, when it originated, Ambrosia was a three-ingredient dish, according to Serious Eats. At its origin, it was a simple mix of oranges, sugar, and coconut. Perhaps it's best for our health if we go back to preparing it that way instead of what has been widely popularized to include unhealthy ingredients galore.

Nuts and other fruits, like grapes and chopped pineapple, have worked their way into the mix, but the worst of these add-ons is marshmallow. Sometimes incorporated into the whipped cream as a marshmallow whip, this has become a staple of the ambrosia salad. These gelatinous sugar bombs aren't doing any of us any favors, and they certainly don't belong anywhere near a salad. This holiday season, regular fruit salad will do just fine.

Jell-O Salad

slice of jell-O Salad
slice of jell-O Salad - Islandleigh/Getty Images

Another outdated dish that somehow seems to make it to the table each year is the dreaded Jell-O salad. Once again, this is far from a salad and typically contains Jell-O, whipped cream, fruit, and sometimes nuts or pretzels. There are a lot of family-specific variations, but none of them are healthy. We don't actually think you'll need that much convincing to skip out on the Jell-O this year, but just in case, we've got some facts.

Jell-O itself isn't terrible, but often where it's found, whipped cream isn't too far away. Heavy cream, whipped to make whipped cream, contains 36% fat. Not only that, the fat in cream is primarily saturated fat, the overconsumption of which has been linked to heart disease.

There's no substitute for trash, but if you insist, there are some pretty easy ways to make Jell-O salad lighter. You can use zero-sugar gelatin mixes, for starters, or perhaps substitute the whipped cream with Cool Whip. Any routes you can take to lower sugar and fat content in your Jell-O salad are the roads best taken.

Dinner Rolls

fresh baked rolls iin dish covered with cloth
fresh baked rolls iin dish covered with cloth - Say-cheese/Getty Images

We love a good dinner roll and butter to get a meal started, but at Thanksgiving, they should be the last thing on your mind. Rolls are often empty carbs and calories in a meal when you are already eating a lot of carbohydrates. In fact, Thanksgiving dinner is already such a carb-focused meal that it can be dangerous for diabetics, according to Cleveland.com. It's also quite the challenge for Keto dieters to find anything to eat during the carb-filled obstacle course that is Thanksgiving. A good way to bring your meal into balance is to pass on the rolls.

If you are the chef in charge of this year's festivities and you want to make some healthy changes, you can opt for whole wheat dinner rolls instead. Creating a lower-carb bread will allow you and your family to munch guilt-free while they wait for the turkey to come out.

Mashed Potatoes

mashed potatoes with gravy
mashed potatoes with gravy - Cislander/Getty Images

This one hurts. We love mashed potatoes, but there are plenty of tasty ways to lighten the load and not go overboard on the delicious starches at this year's Thanksgiving. In particular, it's a good idea to lower the fat and sodium content of your mashed taters. Typically, the creaminess of mashed potatoes comes from two ingredients: Butter and cream. These dairy products contain a large amount of saturated fats which, according to Harvard, can boost blood levels of LDL cholesterol. That's the bad kind of cholesterol, and it can lead to heart disease. Not the route to go, even for potatoes. Trust us, there are better ways.

Sometimes milk is used instead of or in addition to cream, and that's a wonderful place to start. If you're used to enriching your mash with cream, try 1% milk instead this year. Or better yet, chicken broth is an excellent and flavorful way to make your potatoes creamy and smooth without the use of cream or butter. Finally, if you are using salted butter on those suckers please, for the love of all things delicious, switch to unsalted and do everyone a favor.

Potatoes Au Gratin

tray of roasted potato gratin
tray of roasted potato gratin - Esin Deniz/Shutterstock

Say goodbye to mashed potatoes and say hello to its sexy cousin, potatoes au gratin. Wait, that's not right. See, even we couldn't resist its pull. This is a delicious potato dish because it's loaded with carbs, fat, and sodium thanks to the cream, butter, and cheese. Potatoes can be part of a healthy diet, but that's not the case here.

A gratin of any type is usually topped with a béchamel sauce. Add to that a heaping pile of cheese and you have a recipe for one of the most indulgent sides on the Thanksgiving menu. This is the case for many a delicious potato gratin, but as it turns out, all that béchamel is made with dairy, pushing its saturated fat content way over what you need in a Thanksgiving side dish. Simply put, this dish contains most of the same ingredients as mashed potatoes but in greater quantities. If it's between this and the previous option, reach for the mashed potatoes instead.

Macaroni And Cheese

casserole dish of mac and cheese
casserole dish of mac and cheese - Goskova Tatiana/Shutterstock

Mac and cheese is far from the most traditional Thanksgiving dish you can think of. The settlers and colonizers of the land now known as the United States were not feeding their children cheesy pasta from a box. This is a distinctly modern addition and one that we frankly could do without. Your kids, on the other hand, might disagree.

A favorite of children everywhere, this simple pasta dish is typically made with a few ingredients pretty high in saturated fats: Cheese, butter, and cream. These are becoming common culprits in our Thanksgiving search. So how do we turn this dish, which traditionally contains large amounts of fat and refined carbs, into something that makes sense as a side dish?

There are a few ways to go to make this side healthier, such as using whole wheat pasta or going dairy-free with a vegan mac and cheese. Still, if watching carbs is a thing for you this Thanksgiving we recommend staying away from any kind of pasta (or pasta salad) that you get offered.

Canned Cranberry Sauce

fresh and canned cranbery sauces
fresh and canned cranbery sauces - Debbismirnoff/Getty Images

We aren't huge fans of that canned Ocean Spray jelly masquerading as cranberry sauce. The stuff simply has too much sugar. When it comes to cranberry sauce, the DIY approach is easy and much healthier, and preparing something so yummy and simple for the family can be immensely satisfying. Some folks set in their ways will take some more convincing to go this route, and if Dad sneaks a can into the grocery cart there's only so much you can do.

Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce contains 24 grams of added sugar per serving. That's 24 out of 25 total grams of sugar, no less — nearly the whole thing is added sugar, and according to Eating Well, canned cranberry sauce with added sugars can cause blood pressure spikes. Instead, opt for homemade cranberry sauce. This way even the diabetics at your table can partake in the wonder that is turkey and cranberry sauce.

Candied Yams

candied sweet potatoes with sesame seeds
candied sweet potatoes with sesame seeds - sasazawa/Shutterstock

Many people don't think there is much of a difference between the aforementioned sweet potatoes and yams. This is likely because they've never really had yams in their life, only sweet potatoes called by that name. Yams are very much their own distinct vegetable, and yams are a totally different species, Dioscorea batatas. Notably, real yams aren't found in the United States and don't grow natively here. All this to say, when you're eating a candied yam you are most likely eating a big sweet potato.

While this dish is a bit simpler than the sweet potato casserole, it also includes brown sugar, and often requires an excessive amount of it to caramelize. This year, instead of using sugar, we recommend roasting your sweet potatoes (or yams, if you must) in just a bit of maple syrup. True maple syrup has a lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning its inclusion is less likely to impact blood sugar levels.

Sausage Stuffing

stuffing with sausage
stuffing with sausage - Alivemindphotography/Getty Images

It's difficult to ask people not to eat stuffing on Thanksgiving. Frankly, it's pretty rude, despite the fact it's not the healthiest side dish in the world. Usually, Thanksgiving stuffing is loaded with carbs in the form of bread or cornbread. It's one of the main reasons Thanksgiving has a reputation as a high-carb holiday. Instead of decrying stuffing (or dressing, if you don't stuff it in the bird and want to be pedantic) as a whole, we decided to be specific and find the one type of stuffing you should avoid at all costs.

Sausage meat is the one stuffing ingredient you should be on the lookout for when making healthy choices this Thanksgiving. Sausage, in all its wonderful forms, is a processed meat, and processed meats have health drawbacks that other proteins do not. They aren't great for your heart or colon, but it goes beyond just the well-known facts. According to a 2021 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, processed meat in a person's daily diet can increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Turkey Gravy

boat full of gravy
boat full of gravy - Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Pass the gravy! You'll hear this more than one time over your Thanksgiving weekend. But when it comes your turn, resist the urge or at very least go light on the gravy this year. Especially if it's made from the bird itself.

Gravy made from turkey drippings can be more delicious than the canned stuff, but all that amazing flavor is contained within the fat of the bird. These drippings are high in fat and sodium, and considering that American turkey gravy can often be made by adding more fat in the form of milk or butter, this puts most gravies into pretty unhealthy territory. Even if you're getting gravy from a can, it can't avoid the cardinal sin of gravy: High amounts of sodium. There's 240 milligrams of sodium per serving of Heinz Turkey Gravy, and that's a baseline.

There are ways to make a healthier gravy, of course, starting with the basics like mushroom gravy. Way back in 1993, The Washington Post shared a dietician's tip involving cream of mushroom soup diluted with evaporated skimmed milk.


cornbread on cutting board
cornbread on cutting board - Bhofack2/Getty Images

Much like biscuits or the aforementioned dinner rolls, cornbread is another source of extra carbs that's often just sitting on the Thanksgiving table screaming "Eat me." Do not eat the cornbread. Do not even make the cornbread, if you are the one in charge of the kitchen.

Cornbread can be similar to dinner rolls in terms of calories and carb content, but according to Foodstruct, cornbread is higher in sugar, fiber, sodium, and saturated fats than the average dinner roll. If you eat it with honey or butter (or who can resist honey butter?), that makes those numbers tick up even more. As it turns out, these high-calorie sides are sometimes vehicles for even more calories.

If you want to incorporate corn into your Thanksgiving feast, you aren't out of options though. Try corn pudding instead, or save yourself a lot of work and go with simple corn on the cob.

Pecan Pie

slice of pecan pie with whipped cream
slice of pecan pie with whipped cream - Nicolasmccomber/Getty Images

So you've made it to the end of the meal. Congratulations, but Thanksgiving isn't over yet. While desserts aren't side dishes, a holiday list could not be complete without a slice of pie — and wouldn't you know it, we chose the most unhealthy one you are most likely to see on the dessert table. Normally, many of us may go for the pecan pie, but after learning how much worse it is for you than pumpkin pie you may want to make a different choice.

Pecan pie is usually higher in sugar and fats than the other seasonal desserts. If you've ever made the dessert, you'll know well that corn syrup and molasses are key ingredients going into this. Karo light corn syrup, used in many recipes, contains 121 calories and 30 grams of carbs per 41-gram serving, making it pretty much all carbohydrates. As for molasses, Grandma's has a similarly small serving size and high carb count, at 16 grams per single-tablespoon serving, of which 15 grams is sugar. If for dessert, the choice is between pecan and pumpkin, pecan pie is much less healthy for you. This year, we are team pumpkin.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.