Is Thanksgiving Turkey Healthy? Nutritionists Weigh In.
Stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce may be fan favorites, but the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is the turkey.
And if you’re focused on the nutrition of your Thanksgiving plate, turkey may be your friend. Turkey contains a number of important nutrients that can promote overall health.
But exactly how healthy is turkey? And what boosts or decreases its nutritional value? HuffPost asked nutritionists to share their thoughts on the holiday bird.
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You shouldn’t worry about the nutritional value of one single meal, but turkey has loads of nutritional benefits nonetheless.Turkey has many nutritional benefits.
“I actually think the turkey is one of the healthiest choices at Thanksgiving!” said registered dietitian Kath Younger. “Unlike many of the casseroles, as a whole food, you know what you’re eating when you slice into turkey. And as a rich source of quality protein, you’ll help to balance out the macronutrients on your plate.”
Indeed, turkey is a lean source of protein, and it’s also quite versatile, tasting great with a variety of accouterments. But it’s not just about the protein.
“Turkey contains key nutrients such as iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins B6 and B12,” said registered dietitian Regan Jones. It also has niacin, selenium and choline.
Some parts are healthier than others.
“Specific calories and fat depend on what part of the bird you eat and whether you decide to eat the skin,” said Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen.”
A medium drumstick with skin, Largeman-Roth pointed out, has 416 calories, 55 grams of protein and 21 grams of fat (including 6 grams of saturated fat). A 3-ounce portion of skinless roasted turkey breast, on the other hand, contains 125 calories, has 26 grams of protein, and less than 2 grams of total fat.
Multiple nutritionists recommended light meat turkey breast without the skin as the healthiest choice, as it’s lower in saturated fat than its dark meat and skin-on counterparts, like the thigh.
“Given the skin is the primary source of fat in turkey, removing it after cooking will provide a meal that is lower in fat, without sacrificing all of the flavor and moisture it provides,” said registered dietitian Maya Feller of Maya Feller Nutrition.
It’s all relative, however. As Jones noted: “Even that turkey leg is typically leaner than many cuts of red meat, for instance.”
It’s probably not what makes you sleepy.
“There is no foul play when it comes to a traditional Thanksgiving turkey,” said Melissa Halas, registered dietitian and founder of SuperKids Nutrition.
Halas noted that this lean meat can have lots of health benefits, ranging from energy production to tissue repair.
“While this Thanksgiving staple is also known for containing tryptophan, an amino acid associated with healthful sleep, it would take an extreme quantity consumed to reap these extra zzzs,” Halas added. “The familiar post-meal sleepiness is generally a result of being as stuffed as the Thanksgiving turkey.”
Frying is the least healthy cooking method.
“Most preparation methods of turkey don’t really impact its ‘healthy’ status, with the exception of fried turkey,” Jones said. “If the turkey is fried at too low of a temp, more oil can be absorbed by the bird, increasing the fat and calorie content.”
But don’t let this limit you. If frying your turkey is a special Thanksgiving tradition, feel free to continue with that method. A once-per-year meal is unlikely to have a huge impact on your overall health. Still, there are other considerations.
“While frying a turkey may seem like the method to avoid, the related safety risks are much more of a concern than the nutritional content itself,” Feller said. “The risk of fire and explosion are common among amateurs, and if adequate oil temperatures are not maintained, your turkey may become overly saturated with oil. Just as with any meat, be sure to cook your bird until a safe internal temperature is reached.” (That’s about 165 degrees Fahrenheit for turkey.)
Stick to roasting or grilling.
“Roasting or grilling are generally the healthiest cooking methods,” Largeman-Roth said.
You can experiment with various flavor profiles by trying out different rubs, brines or bunches of fresh herbs.
“Rub the bird with aromatic, salt-free poultry seasoning, which is thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper and nutmeg,” suggested Vicki Shanta Retelny, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Total Body Diet for Dummies.” “Not only will it give it loads of flavor, but antioxidants and phytonutrients, which are great for your cells and overall health.”
There are ways to make oven-roasted turkey healthier, as well.
“If you’re looking for a lower-fat meal because you are thinking about cardiovascular health, try preparing the turkey with a dry rub of spices and roasting your turkey without any butter or oil under the skin,” said Feller. “Allow the turkey to cook in its natural flavors and juices, and trim away excess fat before eating.”
Be mindful of saturated fat.
“In terms of nutritional cons, one potential problem could be the large amount of fat added in preparation of the turkey,” said registered dietitian Jinan Banna, who teaches nutrition at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “The stuffing may be prepared with a lot of butter and heavy cream, which are high in saturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat raises the cholesterol in the blood, and the recommendation is to limit it to no more than 10% of calories per day.”
Thanksgiving Turkey Breast Recipes
Banna also recommended cutting some of the fat in the gravy by using skim milk instead of heavy cream, and avoiding ingredients like bacon in the turkey preparation. Limiting butter is also helpful. And removing the skin from the turkey can reduce your saturated fat consumption.
“Sure, things like deep frying it add more fat and calories, but it’s really all the toppings and sides that add the most,” said Christopher Mohr, a registered dietitian and co-owner of Mohr Results. “When you smother it in gravy and all other toppings, it of course also comes with more fat, calories and sugar.”
Other ingredients can boost the nutritional value.
“Depending on how you prepare your turkey, the other ingredients can also be very healthful,” Banna said. When you put your turkey in the roasting pan, toss in some flavorful produce along with it. “Examples would be chopped onions, carrots and apples. Apples as one of the ingredients are a great choice, as they provide fiber and important micronutrients.” She also suggested celery, oranges and cranberries to add micronutrients and antioxidants.
Halas shared her tips for enhancing the nutritional value of the stuffing, too.
“Rather than a traditional bread stuffing, opt for wild rice or whole-grain option, cooked in low-sodium vegetable stock and a fresh or dried herb blend,” Halas advised. “This will not only decrease the saturated fat and salt content, but also add a colorful burst of wholesome nutrition. This year, let the gravy boat sail and enjoy your turkey with a tart cranberry sauce, plant-based gravy, or vegetable puree.”
Balance is key.
If you’re trying to be health-conscious on Thanksgiving, you don’t have to make major sacrifices. Just keep things balanced.
“This holiday season, create a healthy and balanced dish by enjoying your turkey alongside fiber-filled vegetables and hearty whole grains,” Halas said. “For an added nutritional boost, skip the skin, and eat from within, to eliminate the majority of the saturated fat content.”
You can also make sure to keep your individual plate balanced.
“To keep all the delicious fixings at Thanksgiving in line, think about the plate method for healthy eating to assist you with the portion sizes,” advised Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition For Dummies.” “Half your plate should be filled with vegetables, one quarter of the plate with the protein (i.e. turkey) and the final quarter with the starches/grains.”
There’s no need to fixate on nutrition on Thanksgiving.
The experts HuffPost spoke to emphasized that one annual meal isn’t going to ruin your health, so there’s no need to fixate on Turkey Day nutrition.
“I don’t think Thanksgiving is a time to worry about which preparation is the healthiest,” Younger said. “Rather, it’s a day to enjoy a little of all the foods you look forward to all year in a mindful way. I do think it’s worth looking for a quality turkey, humanely raised if you can find one, and be sure to cook it properly so you’re following good food safety measures!”
Added Mohr: “There’s enough in the world to worry about right now, and calories on Thanksgiving shouldn’t be one of them.”