Exactly How Healthy is Your Thanksgiving Turkey?

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Thanksgiving can be stressful if you’re following a diet or if you’re trying to shed a few pounds. But before you panic or decide to leave turkey off your plate, remember this: Thanksgiving is one day out of the year. And it’s okay to indulge, as long as you don’t make yourself sick. If you try to count calories on Thanksgiving, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. So please, leave your holiday food guilt behind and try to enjoy yourself.

That said, here at Cooking Light, we work hard to help you make every meal—including the big one—as delicious and healthy as possible. From a fresher green bean casserole to a remake of classic stuffing, there are plenty of ways to make every side dish second-helping worthy, and still good-for-you enough that you won’t regret eating it later.

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But what about the turkey? Is it nutritious? And are there ways to make it healthier?

While turkey is considered to be a leaner protein than beef, not all cuts are equal. From a nutrition perspective, it matters whether you help yourself to skinless breast meat or skin-on thigh meat. The same goes for deep-frying a turkey versus roasting it. (Unsurprisingly, the latter is healthier.)

However, you can build a (reasonably) healthy Thanksgiving plate by having a better sense of the nutrition behind the foods that end up on it. To help you have a relaxing holiday, we’ve pulled together everything you need to know about the nutrition of your favorite bird so you can decide the best way to indulge this year.

Looking for healthier ways to cook a Thanksgiving turkey? Try these easy recipes:

  • Lemon-Herb Turkey
  • Cider-Glazed Turkey with Roasted Apples
  • Spatchcocked Smoky Grilled Turkey with Cumin Spice
  • Pomegranate-Glazed Turkey Breast

Turkey Nutrition

Image zoom Greg DuPree

What exactly is a serving size of turkey? The USDA’s recommended portion size for poultry is about 3 ounces. For turkey, this translates to roughly the same size as a deck of playing cards. And no, that’s not very much.

RELATED: Here’s a Handy Way to Understand Serving Sizes

Below, find the nutrition breakdown of two white and dark meat turkey cuts—turkey breast and turkey leg. The numbers reflect that 3-ounce serving size. Inevitably, most of us will consume more than this on Thanksgiving, so use the below figures as a benchmark.

Roasted Turkey Breast (Skin-On)
Calories: 160; Fat: 6g; Sat Fat: 2g; Unsat Fat: 2.5g; Protein: 24g; Sodium: 55mg

Roasted Turkey Breast (Skinless)
Calories: 130; Fat: 2g; Sat Fat: 0.5g; Unsat Fat: 1g; Protein: 26g; Sodium: 85mg

Roasted Turkey Leg (Skin-On)
Calories: 180; Fat: 8g; Sat Fat: 2.5g; Unsat Fat: 5g; Protein: 24g; Sodium: 65mg

Roasted Turkey Leg (Skinless)
Calories: 140; Fat: 3g; Sat Fat: 1g; Unsat Fat: 1.5g; Protein: 25g; Sodium: 70mg

Source: USDA

Skin-On vs Skinless Turkey

Crispy, skin-on turkey is delicious. It also contains nearly twice as much fat as skinless turkey. (It doesn’t matter if you choose white or dark meat, either.) However, it’s important to note that the vast majority of the fat in turkey skin is unsaturated fat. You’ll cut the saturated fat in half by removing the turkey skin, but you’ll also lose most of the healthy fats.

If you’re looking to cut down on saturated fat (which is recommended), then your best bet is to remove the turkey skin. To boost the flavor of your skinless turkey, top it with Spiced-Apple Cranberry Sauce or savory-sweet Balsamic-Cranberry Onion Jam.

White Meat vs Dark Meat

White turkey meat, which includes the breasts, is slightly lower in calories than dark meat, which includes the legs, thighs, and wings. Dark meat is also higher in fat than white meat—but again, the majority of this is unsaturated fat.

However, these small differences in calories and fat aren’t enough to warrant choosing one over the other. So, if you like the flavor of dark meat better, then by all means choose turkey leg over turkey breast.

Health Benefits of Turkey

Image zoom Photo: Jennifer Causey

Turkey is considered a lean protein—regardless of the cut, it supplies over 20g per serving for a relatively small amount of fat. Turkey meat also packs potassium, selenium, and a spectrum of B vitamins, most notably niacin (Vitamin B3). Niacin contributes to a healthy metabolism and helps your body process sugars and fatty acids into energy.

The Bottom Line: Turkey is perfectly healthy—and the biggest nutrition differences are going to come from choosing skin-on or skinless meat. For white and dark meat, the differences in calories and fat are relatively small. While turkey is low in sodium naturally, always read the label—some store-bought birds may be injected with sodium solutions.

So load up your plate with turkey by all means, but be mindful of portion size. Make sure you’re also loading up on healthy Thanksgiving side dishes full of our favorite fall veggies like Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash.

Turkey vs Chicken: Which Has More Protein?

Both chicken and turkey provide high-quality protein and can be a healthy component of a balanced diet. But keep in mind that too much of any single food, meat included, could have negative consequences on your health (10).

Incorporating moderate amounts of chicken or turkey into your diet can be a healthy way to meet your protein needs, although protein isn’t the only nutrient turkey and chicken provide.

When deciding which option may meet your personal nutrition needs and health goals best, the total nutrition content, including calories, fat, vitamins and minerals, should be considered alongside protein.

Calories and Fat

Paying attention to calories and fat content of foods may be necessary depending on your health goals.

Fat is an essential component of a healthy diet and poultry contains different types of healthy fats (10).

However, fat is a denser source of calories compared to protein. This means that higher-fat cuts of meat will have more calories than leaner cuts.

Overall, dark meat in both chicken and turkey has more fat than white meat. This tends to be true for other types of poultry as well.

Dark meat cuts of chicken have slightly more fat and calories than dark meat cuts of turkey. The same is true for the white meat of these two types of poultry, as turkey is slightly leaner with fewer calories than chicken.

It’s also worth noting that if you eat the skin, you’ll see a jump in both fat and calorie content of any type of poultry.

None of this means either choice is necessarily better than the other, but it may be worth considering depending on what you want to accomplish with your diet.

Vitamins and Minerals

While there is no significant difference in vitamin and mineral content between chicken and turkey, there may be some variations of these nutrients between white and dark meat in general.

For example, chicken breast contains more niacin and vitamin B6 than chicken leg, while chicken leg contains significantly more zinc than the chicken breast (2, 6).

Therefore, if you’re looking to increase your intake of zinc, the dark meat may be a better option, whereas if you want a vitamin B boost, the white meat may be more suitable.

When considering dietary options such as these, it’s good to keep the big picture in mind. Eating a wide variety of foods and cuts of meat may be the best way to ensure that you get the nutrients you need.

Summary Both chicken and turkey can be a healthy part of your diet. In addition to protein, they both provide calories, fat, vitamins and minerals. You may prefer one over the other depending on your personal health goals.

Nutrition

Turkey is low in fat and high in protein. It is an inexpensive source of iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and B vitamins. A serving of turkey is a 2 to 3-ounce cooked portion. The Food Guide Pyramid suggests 2 to 3 servings from the meat group each day.

The portions below represent 100 grams, approximately 3 1/2 ounces, of sliced meat from a whole roasted turkey.

A 3 1/2-ounce portion of turkey is about the size and thickness of a new deck of cards. The fat and calorie content varies because white meat has less fat and fewer calories than dark meat and skin. One gram of fat contains 9 calories, and one gram of protein contains 4 calories.

Meat Type Calories Total Fat Protein
Breast with skin 194 8 grams 29 grams
Breast w/o skin 161 4 grams 30 grams
Wing w/skin 238 13 grams 27 grams
Leg w/skin 213 11 grams 28 grams
Dark meat w/skin 232 13 grams 27 grams
Dark meat w/o skin 192 8 grams 28 grams
Skin only 482 44 grams 19 grams

Resource: USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory – Turkey (Young Hen)

To calculate calorie intake, total fat, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients for an entire day, use the University of Illinois Nutrition Analysis Tool at http://www.nat.uiuc.edu/mainnat.html

Turkey Drumstick (skinless, roasted)

This nutrient information has been updated based on an extensive analysis conducted in conjunction with Health Canada and reflects the new turkey nutrient data available on Health Canada’s Canadian Nutrient File website.

Dark turkey meat is considered a favourite for those that know that this meat is particularly moist. Often bypassed by white meat lovers, the dark turkey meat is tasty and nutritious in its own right. Grab a drumstick today!

Nutritional Information
Per 100 g

Amount Claim Calories 189 Protein 31 g Excellent source Carbohydrate 0 g Fat 6.4 g Extra lean Cholesterol 143 mg Sodium 90 mg Low sodium Potassium 268 mg Source Iron 1.1 mg Source Phosphorus 201 mg Good source Magnesium 15 mg Source Zinc 3.6 mg Excellent source Selenium 14 mcg Excellent source Vitamin B6 0.2 mg Source Vitamin B12 2.2 mcg Excellent source *Niacin 11.6 NE Excellent source

*NE (niacin equivalent) is the unit used to express niacin content of food. It represents preformed niacin plus tryptophan equivalents.

Source: Health Canada. 2010.
Canadian Nutrient File :
www.healthcanada.gc.ca/cnf.

Turkey dark meat nutrition

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