Majestic and courageous aren't words people normally associate with turkeys. But Benjamin Franklin respected these birds so much that he not only used these words of admiration but wanted the turkey -- not the bald eagle -- to be America's national symbol.
Franklin would be shocked by today's turkey farms. More than 255 million turkeys were slaughtered in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. That means the average American consumes about 17 pounds of turkey meat each year.
Of course, these modern, industry-bred turkeys are a far cry from the wild turkeys admired by Franklin in his day.
Most of today's turkeys are intensively confined in crowded, dirty sheds with no natural sunlight, let alone fresh grass or woods to forage in or trees to roost in. Millions of tons of waste from these farms pollute nearby waterways and cause other environmental damage.
Selective breeding and growth hormones have been a boon to the meat industry, causing turkeys to grow very large over a very short period of time. But the birds, unable to withstand this unnatural size, suffer numerous chronic health problems.
Turkey Not a Health Food
If that's not enough to inspire a vegetarian Thanksgiving this year, consider this:
Turkey is hardly health food. Six ounces of a roasted turkey breast with the skin derives 48 percent of its calories from fat and has 124 milligrams of cholesterol. That's before you add the gravy.
Even one fatty meal -- say, a Thanksgiving dinner -- can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study showed that a single high-fat meal can prevent a person's HDL, or "good" cholesterol, from safeguarding the body against clogged arteries.
Within three hours of a fatty meal, the lining of the arteries can lose elasticity, impeding blood flow. After six hours, the anti-inflammatory properties of HDL are significantly compromised. Saturated fat, found mostly in animal meat and products, has long been linked to plaque buildup in the arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
But that's not all a high-fat meal can do. According to a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition, a fatty meal constricts veins and arteries, causing the heart to beat harder and blood pressure to rise. Researchers at the University of Calgary gave 30 young, healthy people either a high-fat fast-food meal (about 42 grams of fat) or a meal containing no more than 1.3 grams of fat. When both groups were subjected to a series of standard stress tests, those who ate the high-fat meal saw their blood pressure go up 1.25 to 1.5 times higher than that of the participants who ate the low-fat food.
Then there's the animal protein in turkey, which, like fat and cholesterol, also contributes to chronic disease. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year found that high protein intakes are associated with an increased risk of cancer. High protein intake is also associated with calcium loss and impaired kidney function.
Unlike vegetarian foods, turkey has no fiber. Meals made from sweet potatoes, squash, lentils, beans and whole grains are full of fiber, an important nutrient that helps the body rid itself of cholesterol, potentially cancer-causing hormones, and toxins. Fiber is never found in meat or animal products.
Thanksgiving dinner usually leaves people feeling lethargic and heavy. According to a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the average weight gain for adults over the year is 1.4 pounds, 0.8 of which is gained between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
The study also showed that the weight gained over the winter holidays isn't lost during the rest of the year. That's bad news for anyone trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Anyone who prepares the turkey dinner has probably heard the USDA'a warning not to wash or rinse their turkey because doing so can spread potentially deadly bacteria, including salmonella and campylobacter.
Rinsing a turkey can spread pathogens presumed to be present on the bird to the kitchen sink, counter surfaces or kitchen utensils. But cooking an unwashed turkey is no guarantee that dangerous bacteria will be destroyed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people in the United States contract illnesses from foodborne pathogens each year. Five thousand of these people die.
Passing on the Meat
Heard enough? Choosing a meatless holiday feast is one way to avoid the risk of foodborne illness as well as the lethargy and weight gain that often accompany a high-fat diet. The vegetarian options are endless, so it's easy to replace the turkey without sacrificing tradition or taste.
For example, a 4-ounce serving of Tofuturkey roast, a popular soy-and wheat-based turkey alternative, has 26 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber and no saturated fat or cholesterol. If Tofurkey isn't your thing, try a hearty autumn stew, stuffed squash, lentil stew, or roasted winter root vegetables. Traditional Thanksgiving sides, like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, can all be made without butter, cream and other fatty animal products.
Franklin, who suffered from gout (a painful condition associated with a high-fat, meat-heavy diet), switched to a mostly vegetarian diet toward the end of his life as a way to manage his health condition.
This year, you can give thanks by choosing vegetarian foods, which are not only kinder and safer but can help prevent disease and promote overall health. It's a tradition worth starting -- and following throughout the year. Delicious and healthy recipes can be found at http://www.pcrm.org/health/recipes/thanksgiving.html.
Dr. Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and the president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes vegetarianism. Sarah Farr writes on health topics for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.