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

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

Thanksgiving TurkeyThe turkey has enjoyed a long history with the American consciousness and diet. But what, if any, are the health benefits of turkey?

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.

Thanksgiving Turkey Nutrition Facts

Is turkey healthy for you, and is turkey low in cholesterol? You likely have many questions about this festive entrée. 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.

1. 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 44 mg of cholesterol.

2. Whole turkey:

One serving of whole turkey has 130 calories, three grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, 65 mg of cholesterol, and 25 g of protein.

3. Wings:

One serving of wings has 140 calories, three grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, 60 mg of cholesterol, and 26 g protein.

4. Drumsticks:

One serving of drumsticks has 140 calories, four grams of fat, one gram of saturated fat, 65 mg of cholesterol, and 24 g of protein.

5. Thigh:

One serving of turkey thigh has 140 calories, five grams of fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, and 23 g of protein.

6. Ground:

The nutritional value of ground turkey depends on which meats are involved. One serving of regular ground (13% fat) turkey has 200 calories, 11 g of fat, 3 g of saturated fat, 87 mg of cholesterol, and 23 g of protein. If it is just ground white meat (99% fat free), it will only have 98 calories, 1.5 g of fat, zero grams of saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, and 20 g 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.

Turkey: Nutrition Chart and Facts

Here’s a turkey nutrition chart for easy reference:

Turkey Nutrition Facts (100 g or 3 ½-oz. serving)
Meat Type Calories Total Fat Protein
Breast with skin 194 8 grams 29 grams
Breast without skin 161 4 grams 30 grams
Wing with skin 238 13 grams 27 grams
Leg with skin 213 11 grams 28 grams
Dark meat with skin 232 13 grams 27 grams
Dark meat without skin 192 8 grams 28 grams
Skin only 482 44 grams 19 grams

*Source: University of Illinois Extension

Health Benefits of Turkey Meat

With turkey day around the corner, it’s important to remember that this form of protein is a great choice anytime of the year. One serving of the white meat offers 65% of the recommended daily intake of protein.

With that said, the body can only absorb and process protein in small amounts at a time. Have turkey and other protein sources such as eggs, fish, and soy throughout the day to raise the intake to 100%.

The type of bird you choose also plays a role in the various turkey health benefits, for both healthy people and those with medical conditions. It is best to buy turkey with a lower fat content.

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

Health Facts about Thanksgiving Turkey

1. 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.

2. 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. Additionally, skinless turkey is a great source of protein for those following a diabetes-friendly diet.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Arginine

Turkey breast has the highest amount of arginine found in lean meats.As an amino acid, arginine boosts the immune system, produces nitric oxide to maintain good blood flow, helps in injury healing, and stimulates the kidneys to remove waste.

Health Benefits of Thanksgiving Turkey for Different Medical Conditions

1. High Cholesterol

Turkey has niacin, also known as vitamin B3, which targets the cholesterol levels in the body. It may reduce the bad cholesterol, known as LDL, while increasing good cholesterol levels of HDL.

In the medical world, niacin is used as a substitute for statins to lower cholesterol in select patients.

2. Weakened Immune System

We depend on a healthy immune system to keep the body functioning properly as well as to fight illness and disease. Turkey provides serotonin production through the amino acid known as tryptophan, which is found in the meat. Serotonin supports a good immune system.

Turkey also has high levels of zinc, which also supports and strengthens the immune system.

3. Thyroid Problems

The selenium in turkey also works to strengthen and support the proper metabolism of the thyroid by balancing the thyroid hormones.

Those with hypothyroidism need to be cautious with the consumption of excess tryptophan, as this may impair the thyroid gland. Turkey is still a good food choice but should be balanced with other protein sources such as broth or gelatin at the same meal.

4. Cancer

Turkey is known to have sufficient levels of protein and iron, which cancer patients require to combat infections. The Cancer Cure Foundation suggests that having adequate intakes of protein and other essential nutrients may help relieve the symptoms of treatment such as nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.

It is also considered to be a possible food-based tool in the prevention of cancer, as turkey has the highest amount of the essential mineral known as selenium. In addition to supporting the functioning of the thyroid, selenium is thought to help remove the free radicals that attribute to cancer cells.

5. Low Mood

For cases of mood swings, mild depression, and anxiety, amino acids in turkey may help to improve symptoms. The serotonin from the tryptophan in turkey may enhance mood-boosting neurotransmitters.

6. Diabetes

Having diabetes can be a challenge when it comes to eating the proper food to maintain balanced insulin levels. Turkey, without the skin, is a good choice for diabetics as it is low on the glycemic index.

The glycemic index ranks the carbohydrates in food according to their effect on blood sugar levels. The lower on the scale, the better the food is for stabilizing insulin levels by causing a slower rise in the blood glucose level.

7. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a chronic disorder with no apparent cause or cure. Some doctors recommend management of symptoms through a high-protein diet, such as regular consumption of turkey. This meat has tryptophan, which reduces the inflammation causing the pain and discomfort of gas, bloating, and constipation.

Those with IBS are advised to remove the skin of the turkey before cooking and eating. Organic turkey is also recommended.

8. Low Red Blood Cell Count

Issues within the bone marrow, where red blood cells are produced, may cause low levels of red blood cells. Turkey has high amounts of zinc, iron, potassium, and phosphorus to stimulate the growth of red blood cells.

9. Excess Weight

Turkey is a low-fat meat with more than one-third of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B3 and more than one-quarter of recommended vitamin B6. These vitamins are essential to weight loss as well as maintaining a well-functioning digestive system.

This allows for a boost to the metabolic process, which helps our cells to grow, repair, and duplicate.

10. Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleeping disorder that causes you to lose sleep, leading to lethargy, anxiety, and irritability. The serotonin produced by the tryptophan found in turkey meat helps alleviate the tension and anxiety brought on by insomnia.

It should be mentioned that while some believe the tryptophan induces sleep, neuropharmacologist Richard Wurtman believes that sleepiness after a turkey meal may result from the large amount of carbohydrates.

Wurtman, a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, suggests that turkey does not contain sufficient amounts to cause drowsiness.

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.

Simple Healthy Turkey Recipe for this Thanksgiving

To help you prepare for a healthy and delicious Thanksgiving turkey, below is a recipe for a 10-person serving of thyme, rosemary, and parsley-roasted turkey. The turkey is cooked with the skin on to retain its moisture and taste. You should remove the skin before serving, however, to avoid taking in excess fat and calories per serving.

Thyme, Rosemary, and Parsley Roasted Turkey with Gravy


  • 12 lb fresh turkey (or thawed)
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • ½ cup dry white wine or apple cider
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • 2 ½ cups homemade broth (recipe below)

Turkey Directions:

Preheat oven to 325°F with the oven rack set at the lowest placement. Spray a wire roasting rack with cooking spray and place in bottom of roasting pan.

Prepare the turkey by removing the giblets and neck, setting aside for the broth, and the liver for other uses. Pat dry the cavity with paper towel. Remove the skin only from the breast and the upper thigh portions.

Combine the thyme, rosemary, parsley, lemon zest, oil, salt, and pepper. Smear mixture between the skin and the turkey at the points of the breast and upper thighs.

Stuff the cavity of the turkey with the onions and tuck the wings behind the back. Tie the drumsticks together with kitchen twine.

Place the turkey breast-side up in roasting pan and loosely cover with foil.

Roast for two hours before removing foil and continue roasting for one to 1 ¾ hours. It will be ready once the meat thermometer reaches 175 to 180° in the inner thigh.

While the turkey is cooking, prepare the giblet broth or simmer if prepared up to two days in advance.

Once cooked, remove turkey from roasting pan and place foil-covered turkey on a cutting board. Pour drippings from pan into a glass measuring cup and place in freezer to speed up the separation of the fat from the drippings.

Place roasting pan on top of two burners and add the wine or chosen liquid. Simmer over medium heat for two minutes. Remove liquid and place through strainer to flow into medium saucepan.

Add homemade broth and simmer for several minutes. Skim the fat from the top of the chilled drippings and stir into the sauce.

Stir cornstarch mixture and gradually add to the sauce simmering, constantly stirring until it is thick and glossary.

Remove twine from turkey, carve, removing skin, and serve.

For the broth:

Heat one tablespoon of a healthy cold-pressed, high smoke-point vegetable oil in a four to six-quart pan over medium-high heat. Add turkey neck and giblets to pan once dried with paper towels.

Brown neck and giblets and remove from pan. Add one chopped onion and two chopped carrots to the pan to brown. Next, add one cup of water, 32 ounces of low-sodium chicken broth, four peeled garlic cloves, one chopped rib celery stick, one teaspoon of black peppercorns, half a teaspoon of dried thyme leaves, and one bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and skim the froth.

Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for one hour. Strain mixture into a bowl, expelling extra juices from the solids. Remove any fat in broth with paper towel.

Add water for broth to measure 2 ½ cups.

Also Read:

Article Sources (+)

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“Turkey Facts and Health Information,” New Mexico Aztec; http://www.aztecnm.gov/senior-community/TurkeyFacts.pdf, last accessed November 16, 2017.
“Benefits of Turkey,” The Science of Eating; http://thescienceofeating.com/2014/11/23/benefits-of-turkey/, last accessed November 16, 2017.
“Diabetes Diet, Eating, & Physical Activity,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/diet-eating-physical-activity, last accessed November 16, 2017.
Brimeyer, T., “5 Simple Thyroid-Friendly Healthy Thanksgiving Tips for Turkey Day,” Forefront Health, November 23, 2016; http://www.forefronthealth.com/healthy-thanksgiving-tips/, last accessed November 16, 2017.
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