Let’s Talk Turkey! The Health Benefits of a Thanksgiving Turkey

By , Category : Food and Nutrition

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Shapiro_151115The turkey has enjoyed a long history with the American consciousness and diet. Sarah Joseph Hale, one of the individuals behind getting Thanksgiving declared a national holiday, was an early advocate of the turkey as a central part of the autumnal feast and her recipes and encouragements are credited with the link the two have shared ever since. Of course, nowadays, it takes more than tradition to justify chomping down on turkey breasts for some—even as part of a once-a-year festivity. Fortunately, turkey offers a rich mix of nutrients, protein, and health benefits. That means you can enjoy the Thanksgiving turkey and still know you’re eating smart.

Birds by the Numbers

Let’s start with the basics; the core nutritional content of the average turkey. The recommended serving size is three ounces (85 grams) of turkey meat that is skinned and cooked. Past this point, the nutritional data depends on which part of the bird is involved.

  • Breast or tenderloins: One serving of turkey breast or tenderloin has 120 calories, one gram of fat, zero grams of saturated fat, 55 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol, and 26 grams (g) of protein. Breast cutlets have the same values except they offer just 44mg of cholesterol.
  • Whole turkey: One serving of whole turkey has 130 calories, three grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, 65mg of cholesterol, and 25g of protein.
  • Wings: One serving of wings has 140 calories, three grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, 60mg of cholesterol, and 26g protein.
  • Drumsticks: One serving of drumsticks has 140 calories, four grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, 65mg of cholesterol, and 24g of protein.
  • Thigh: One serving of turkey thigh has 140 calories, five grams of fat, 1.5g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, and 23g of protein.
  • Ground: The nutritional value of ground turkey depends on which meats are involved. One serving of regular ground (13% fat) turkey has 200 calories, 11g of fat, 3g of saturated fat, 87mg of cholesterol, and 23g of protein. If it is just ground white meat (99% fat free), it will only have 98 calories, 1.5g of fat, zero grams of saturated fat, 45mg cholesterol, and 20g of protein.
  • Regardless of which kind of turkey meat you enjoy, you will also be getting doses of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folate, biotin, niacin, choline, selenium, zinc, and of course the amino acid tryptophan. Dark meat has these nutrients in higher amounts but also contains more fat and calories. Whether you eat dark or light meat is going to depend on the overall balance of your diet and which taste you prefer.

Health Benefits of Turkey Meat

To get an idea of just how turkey can benefit your body it helps to look at each of its offerings in turn.

  • Low-fat and calories: Compared to red meat and even chicken meat, turkey has fewer calories and fat. This mainly applies to only the non-ground meat. As you may have noticed above, ground turkey meat can still be a large source of both so be careful when buying things like turkey burgers. Assuming you’re comparing breast meat and the like, however, turkey will win out.
  • Protein: Vital for maintaining lean muscle, feeling full, and keeping insulin stable, protein is a welcome nutrient found in many meats. The trick with this little guy, though, is that your body can only absorb so much at any given time. This is why lean protein sources—like white turkey meat—can be of extra benefit since you don’t over-consume the nutrient. Protein also helps in tissue repair and preventing fatty buildups in the liver.
  • The vitamin B family: As noted above, turkey has good levels of all eight B vitamins, which your body uses in various means to burn fat and convert protein into power. They keep nerve coatings intact and help cells create new proteins, DNA, and neurotransmitters. In short, a bit of turkey can help keep your wheels greased and turning smoothly.
  • Selenium: The antioxidant of the bunch. Selenium helps protect against cell damage, cancer, and contributes to tissue elasticity; which is valuable for growth and flexibility.
  • Tryptophan: The levels of tryptophan in turkey are not enough to make you sleepy, but that doesn’t mean the stuff is useless. Your body converts tryptophan into serotonin, an important mood stabilizer and strengthener of the immune system.

Tips for Getting a Healthy Thanksgiving Turkey

Not all turkey meat available at the store is equal. Even if you set aside the presence of added antibiotics, there is also the problem of factory farmed birds being injected with salt, water, and preservatives to increase weight and shelf life. Here are some quick tips to help you pick out the best bird this Thanksgiving.

  • Avoid processing: Forms of turkey like deli meat, hot dogs, turkey burgers, or turkey bacon. These are high in sodium, preservatives, and (as mentioned above) can still have high fat and cholesterol content.
  • Consider kosher: The kosher preparation process involves salting the meat in a manner similar to brining. In other words, a kosher turkey will have a saltier taste but be better at retaining moisture.
  • Ignore hormones: Some turkey will be labeled “hormone free” or something similar. This is just marketing. The USDA bans added hormones in all poultry, so anything you get will do in this area.
  • Consider heritage Turkey: Heritage turkeys are part of a set of older breeds that are raised more slowly and in smaller flocks. It’s more-or-less a type of organically grown bird that is considered to have a more marbled texture and fuller flavor. Alternatively, any organically grown or free range bird can be considered.

Keep these points in mind and you’re sure to get a delicious—and nutritious—turkey for everyone to enjoy at the Thanksgiving table.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Cattel, J., “So, Why Do We Really Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?” Greatist web site, November 25, 2014; http://greatist.com/discover/why-we-eat-turkey.

Cutler, N., “Is Turkey a Good Food for Liver Health?” LiverSupport.com, November 11, 2013; http://www.liversupport.com/is-turkey-a-good-food-for-liver-health/.
Haspel, T., “6 Tips for Buying a Healthier Turkey,” Health. November 5, 2012; http://news.health.com/2012/11/05/healthier-turkey/.
“Turkey Nutrition Facts,” Ohio Poultry Association web site, http://www.ohpoultry.org/fastfacts/docs/nutrition/Turkey nutrition facts.pdf, last accessed November 13, 2015.
Ware, M., “What Are the Health Benefits of Turkey?” Medical News Today web site, November 27, 2014; http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/285736.php


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Dr. Jeffrey Shapiro, MD

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After receiving athletic and academic awards at Yale and Stanford, Jeff has coached those seeking peak wellness, appeared on ABC News 20/20 and served as a consultant for CBS News 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. As the author of many research studies and practicing anesthesiology/critical care medicine for more than 20 years, Jeff can be your guide to common sense decision making regarding drugs, supplements and vitamins. With no corporate sponsors and no vitamins or supplements... Read Full Bio »