Fact of Thanksgiving: Calories add up quicklyGo ahead; enjoy your Thanksgiving meal today. But know that, sometimes, food facts aren't so fun, even if it's probably healthier for you to know them before you take that first bite.
By: Christopher Snowbeck, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
It takes more than two hours to walk off the calories from just one slice of pecan pie.
Opting for white turkey meat instead of dark has less waistline benefit than you might think.
And a half cup of mashed potatoes has significantly fewer calories than the same quantity of stuffing.
Those are among the not-so-fun facts that food scientists at the University of Minnesota have cooked up this holiday season as they counsel moderation at the dinner table.
The researchers maintain one of the nation's largest databases of information on calories and nutrients in everyday foods. So, the U is uniquely qualified to explain, for example, just how many calories can be found in the half-cup serving of green bean casserole you might find on your plate this afternoon.
Here's a hint: It'll take 27 minutes to walk it off, once you factor in the recipe's cream of mushroom soup. And consider this caveat: The U's calorie estimates are based on serving sizes that many folks in the real world might consider to be a sample.
"As someone eating at the table, I'll be more conscious of how much food I take," said researcher Lisa Harnack, who helped compile the U's first set of Thanksgiving calorie counts. "But I think I'll prepare the meal pretty much the same as I have in the past."
Harnack directs the Nutrition Counseling Center at the U's School of Public Health. The National Institutes of Health created the center about 35 years ago to develop a food and nutrition
database that could be used in early heart disease studies.
Since then, researchers also have used the database to study the relationships between diet and many other diseases ranging from cancer to osteoporosis. Just last year, academics published about 150 papers referencing the database, which is particularly useful when researchers try to analyze diets.
Among the recent research topics: soy consumption in breast cancer patients; caffeine, artificial sweetener and fluid intake in those with anorexia nervosa; and the prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in Brazilian adolescents.
"Researchers will ask, 'What did you eat yesterday?,' and then they can enter the answers into our software," Harnack said. "It calculates the nutrients."
A calorie -- or, more precisely, a kilocalorie -- is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. One of the key sources for information about calories in foods is the U.S. Agriculture Department, which maintains the National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
The most recent version of the database lists the nutrient content of some 7,538 foods. The U's database draws on this source, Harnack said, but goes a step further by analyzing calorie and nutrition counts for branded products -- think Big Macs and Lean Cuisine entrees -- as well as certain recipes.
The U's estimate of 96 calories in a half-cup serving of green bean casserole is based on a recipe featuring frozen green beans and a regular can of cream of mushroom soup -- not the light or reduced-sodium versions. The recipe, however, does not include the canned french-fried onions that in some households are synonymous with Thanksgiving.
The estimate of 156 calories in a 3-ounce serving of turkey assumes there's skin on the piece of white meat you're eating. Add about 20 calories for dark meat.
The mashed potatoes in the U's database are made with 1 percent milk and include about a teaspoon of butter per half-cup serving. The stuffing recipe is pretty pedestrian -- just bread, water and celery -- but still clocks in with 214 calories in a half-cup serving.
More on that serving size caveat: The USDA establishes standard serving sizes so consumers can compare the nutritional aspects of similar foods. But a serving does not necessarily equal a portion, which is the amount of food consumed in one eating occasion. As many holiday diners will prove today, portion sizes can vary.
As if counting the calories wasn't bad enough, Harnack's analysis also calculates how long it will take to burn off the Thanksgiving bounty. The baseline estimate, she said, assumes that a 154-pound person burns 213 calories in an hour of walking.
Few enjoy thinking about food in these terms.
"We did research on calorie labeling on menus," Harnack said, "and people felt like showing the exercise minutes was a scare tactic."
But some might find tasty morsels in her survey of Thanksgiving calorie counts.
When it comes to pies, for example, figures are based on a 9-inch diameter pie that's cut into eight pieces. Be prepared to lace up the walking shoes if you select apple or pecan.
"I happen to really like pumpkin," Harnack said, "so that's an easy one for me."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.