Even though turkey is now regarded as the great traditional centrepiece for Christmas dinner, it hasn’t always been. The meat that, according to Quality British Turkey*, 76 percent of British households will now serve at the Christmas dinner table, only became the standard in the 1950s.
While the prospect of serving anything other than turkey might make some traditionalists aghast, it’s fair to say that alternatives are now seen as being less outlandish than they have been previously. Many of us will now know people who openly break from the great turkey tradition, by featuring other options such as beef, gammon, or salmon as their culinary main event on December 25th.
Christmas is famously a time where we might indulge ourselves more than usual when it comes to food. Last year, we put together a study which revealed that Christmas dinner alone is a meal which can pack over 3,000 calories (one and a half times the daily RI for an adult).
But while Christmas might mean eating a little more than you would normally, it doesn’t mean that nutritional considerations have to take a holiday. As we discussed with Sarah Coe and Michel Roux Jr last year, there are measures you can take both in the kitchen and at the dining table to make Christmas dinner healthier.
This year, we decided to look at the nutritional content of Christmas centrepieces in particular, and have a little fun into the bargain. So we’ve assembled our own knockout tournament of Christmas centrepieces, to see which Christmas meats fare better in certain nutritional areas.
Tale of the tape
We’ve put together a pool of eight centrepieces, which will go head to head in a series of bouts, ‘Top Trumps’ style. This means that for each bout, we’ll select a nutritional field (such as salt content or protein content for instance). The winner of the bout will be the centrepiece with the ‘better’ (or healthier) nutritional value for that field.
So, in a calorie contest for example, the winner of the bout would be the centrepiece with the lower amount per 100 grams.
But in a protein or fibre contest, the winner would be the centrepiece with the higher amount per 100 grams.
The winner of each contest advances to the next round, with the overall winner being crowned Christmas Centrepiece Champion.
We gathered data for each centrepiece from it’s nutritional listing on the website of a leading UK supermarket. The values are for just the meat itself, oven-roasted according to the packet instructions; the values do therefore not take into account other ingredients that might be added during the cooking process.
In our first bout, Turkey takes on Gammon in a protein contest:
- Protein plays a crucial role in building and maintaining strong tissue, muscles and bones.
- The body also needs it to produce vital hormones and enzymes.
- The daily reference intake for an adult is 50 grams.
- Turkey beats Gammon by 32.2 grams to 26.7, advancing to the next round.
Bout number two. Pork and Beef square off in a battle of lower saturated fat:
- Eating too much saturated fat on a regular basis can lead to an increase in low density lipoproteins (LDL) in the blood, resulting in high cholesterol.
- This can then in turn lead to heart disease.
- The recommended daily limit for an adult woman is 20 grams, and 30 grams for a man.
- Pork loses out to Beef, containing 6.4 grams compared to the latter’s 1.6 grams.
In bout three, Goose takes on the veggie classic, the Nut Roast. The stakes this time are calories:
- The body converts calories into energy, which we need to move around and be active, and which our organs require to function.
- If someone regularly consumes more calories than they spend however, they are likely to put on weight, and increase their susceptibility to diet-related illness, such as diabetes.
- The reference intake is 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day for women and men respectively.
- It’s close but the Nut Roast just about pips the Goose, by being 19 calories lighter.
It’s time for bout four, where Duck takes on Salmon in a (low) salt contest:
- The recommended daily salt intake for an adult is 2-6 grams.
- However, the average level of consumption for most adults in the UK is closer to 8 grams.
- Too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure.
- Salmon gets the win, with 0.1 grams of salt to Duck’s 0.5 grams.
Semi-final one. Salmon faces off against Turkey in a calorie match-up:
- Turkey comes out on top, containing 177 calories per 100 grams, compared to Salmon’s 228.
- But salmon’s other nutritional qualities, such as being high in omega-3 fatty acids (which help to maintain good bone and joint health) and an excellent source of several vitamins, make it a more than worthy contender.
In our other semi-final, Beef meets Nut Roast in a fibre match:
- Fibre helps the body to digest food slowly and consistently. This helps us to feel full for longer, so that we’re less likely to snack, and helps the digestive tract to better absorb the nutrients we need from food.
- Fibre also helps to lower the risk of some illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.
- The reference intake for an adult is 30 grams per day, but many people don’t get enough. Most adults only get around 18 grams per day on average, according to the NHS.
- With 12.6 grams, Nut Roast gets the win.
- But an aspect of beef worth mentioning is that it is a great source of iron: a nutrient which is important for the transportation of oxygen around the body through the blood. Those who don’t get enough iron may be more susceptible to fatigue and anaemia.
In our grand final, it’s the classic battle born in the 1970s, of Turkey versus Nut Roast. The field of competition this time? Sugar:
- The recommended intake for total sugars (which is sugar from all food and drink) for an adult is 90 grams.
- But adults are advised to limit their added or ‘free’ sugar intake to 30 grams per day.
- Eating too much sugar on a persistent basis can lead to tooth decay, and increase your risk of obesity and associated illnesses.
- Turkey beats Nut Roast, with nil against 9.4 grams.
So on this occasion, Turkey takes the crown (sorry) of Christmas Centrepiece Champion.
Although on a different day, and by different measures, the results could have been quite different. As we’ve explained above, all the centrepieces we looked at were baked and served as is; the above numbers don’t take into account extras like sauces, stuffing, butter, oil, cooking fat or added salt.
Enjoying a healthy Christmas dinner
Of course the primary aim for those preparing Christmas dinner is that everyone enjoys it, so personal and family preference perhaps play the biggest role in choosing a Christmas centrepiece.
Winners and losers aside, the eight choices we’ve featured all have their individual nutritional benefits. Although turkey won in our contest, some of the other centrepieces are healthier options in other areas.
The key then to enjoying Christmas, but also to keeping it relatively healthy, is to just generally be sensible:
- enjoy a seasonal treat but don’t overdo it;
- keep an eye on portion sizes;
- try to keep your diet varied, by including a wide array of fruit and vegetables, as well as protein from different sources (be it from meat, fish, dairy or pulses) so that you don’t miss out on essential nutrients and vitamins;
- and make sure you get outdoors for some exercise over the festive period, even if it’s just for a walk, to help burn off some of the culinary merriment.
We’ll be back next week with more on getting on an exercise tick for the New Year.
But in the meantime, we hope you have a wonderful Christmas!
* - http://www.britishturkey.co.uk/facts-and-figures/christmas-stats-and-traditions.html