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Gut-Brain Axis

Have a Psychobiotic Thanksgiving

Make a thanksgiving dinner that’s good for your gut microbes and your mood.

Key points

  • Psychobiotics are gut microbes that can improve your mood.
  • You can boost your psychobiotic microbes by reducing sugar and increasing fiber.
Good food, good mood.
Source: Deagreez/iStock

"I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage." —Erma Bombeck

Thanksgiving is that meal where we invite people who may upset our digestion to share a meal that already challenges our digestion. It is famously devoid of healthy food in favor of items designed to stress your belt – and potentially your brain.

But it can be better! The latest research into the gut-brain axis reveals that a good set of gut microbes can improve your mood. The good microbes are called psychobiotic, and this post aims to show you how to kick up Thanksgiving with some psychobiotic tricks.

Here are the three main rules for a delicious psychobiotic dinner:

  1. Reduce the sugar, which supports bad bacteria and only makes you happy in the moment. In the long run, it can make you sick, fat, and diabetic.
  2. Increase the fiber, which supports your good bacteria. They love it and in return they create substances that feed and heal your gut lining.
  3. Try to get some ferments, like yogurt, cheese, or pickles into the mix. These contribute both pre- and pro-biotics to your meal, boosting gut health and mood.

The main dish

A turkey is a pain to cook, but nutritionally sound. Psychobiotically, there is not much to say, except to make sure that you cook the legs longer than the breast. That sounds impossible, and it is. Unless you are brave enough to cook the legs separately and thus ruin your picture-perfect plating, you will have dry breast meat or dangerously pink leg meat. Choose wisely.

Only one psychobiotic tip here: If you brine or marinade, don’t use sugar in the mix. This is the main dish, not dessert.

Side dishes

A psychobiotic stuffing should use whole-wheat multigrain bread that offers plenty of fiber. Rye bread is also good. Add some walnuts to the stuffing: It is a healthy nut with omega-3s and plenty of fiber and polyphenols.

Marshmallows on yams is a gastronomic profanity. Try coconut milk and Thai curry to give them some zip. (Google it.)

Beans in a cream sauce? Psychobiotically, that may actually be fine. Some people put potato chips on top. Don’t be one of those people. Maybe a little parmesan, but not the weird stuff that comes in a can. Fresh parm has probiotic microbes.

For mashed potatoes, here’s a trick: Potatoes are high in starch and can cause a blood sugar spike. But if you cool them in the refrigerator, they develop resistant starch, which acts like fiber to boost your good gut microbes. No one wants cold mashed potatoes, so you can reheat them and they will still retain some of that resistant starch. When mashing, instead of milk, which is microbially dead, add full-fat plain yogurt, loaded with healthy microbes.

If you favor baked potatoes, the same rules apply: Cook them, chill them, reheat them, and use yogurt instead of sour cream as a topping. Better yet, make potato salad, which is meant to serve cold, and typically comes with some bonus veggie treats.

Gravy is typically made from a roux with flour and butter. From the psychobiotic view, flour is not ideal, but what can you do? It’s an essential thickener. Here’s a trick I figured out: Cook up an onion in some oil or butter until it is nicely browned. Add some chicken or turkey stock, then put it all in a blender and whir it until it is silky smooth. The fiber in the onions makes an excellent thickener. That creates a delicious gravy, at least if you like onions.


Pecan pie, a perennial favorite, is technically candy in a crust. It’s actually difficult to find a more sugary treat than pecan pie. So you might want to skip it in favor of a berry pie. Berries are the best fruit from a psychobiotic point of view, because you actually eat their seeds, which are full of fiber and polyphenols. They make a healthier fruit pie than, say, cherries.

Here’s a bold idea: Try using less sugar. Pies used to be more savory than sugary, simply because sugar was rare. In fact, apples, not sugar, were the sweeteners in old-timey pies made of meat and spices. It is only since the 15th century that meat was removed and sugar was added to pie, and the amount of sugar has risen consistently and dangerously ever since. Like excess salt, perhaps we should be teaching our tongues to enjoy less sugar. Sigh.

Still, there are some things to mitigate the sugar apocalypse. You don’t need sugar in a crust at all to make it crispy and delicious. For the filling, cutting the sugar by 25% can really make a health difference without too much disappointment to your taste buds. You can experiment with sugar substitutes: Replace 50% of the sugar with a non-caloric sweetener, and no one will even notice. A tip: Serve the pie warm to increase the apparent sweetness. The colder it is, the more sugar you need to add.

You might even try a cheese plate for a sugar-free dessert. Good cheese contains probiotics that can boost your microbiota.

In sum

I can’t help you with your relatives, who can easily affect your appetite, but some of these tips should boost your psychobiotic game. I’ve been doing this for years without complaint, but you might want to keep it on the down low until the meal is over. You don’t want people to think their Thanksgiving was actually healthy. That’s hardly the holiday spirit.

But making people happier? Now, that’s a Thanksgiving blessing.

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