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11th November, 20206 min read

Is turkey healthy?

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 11/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Turkey is a holiday staple in many parts of the world, but it can also be eaten throughout the year as a good source of protein.

It’s among the healthiest sources of protein as it’s relatively low in fat (if visible fat /skin is removed) and is a good source of zinc, iron and B vitamins.

But how does turkey compare to other sources of protein? How lean is it, and does it matter which part of the turkey you eat?

Turkey meat is relatively low in fat

There are 2 types of turkey meat — white or light meat (from the breast) and dark meat, which normally comes from the legs or thighs of the bird.

Each type varies in terms of the nutrients it provides.

White turkey meat typically contains less fat than red meats like beef or pork. For example, 100g of roasted turkey breast contains approximately half the amount of fat (2.1g) found in a 100g portion of roast beef (4.9g).

It also contains less fat than roast pork loin, tofu and roasted chicken breast.

But 100g of dark turkey meat contains about 5.6g of fat, so it may be best to stick with white (or breast) meat if you’re trying to reduce the amount of fat in your diet.

Experts also warn that you have to be careful when buying ground turkey (or turkey mince). This is because ground turkey can be made with a mix of white and dark meats, skin and fat which means it can be higher in saturated fats.

Try to choose lean versions made from healthier cuts of meat. Saturated fats can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

What about turkey skin?

Turkey skin contains a lot of saturated fat. In fact, leaving the fat on a 100g portion of turkey breast adds an extra 3.5g of fat to your meal. So it’s best to remove the skin if you can.

The American Heart Association says that you should normally do this before cooking your meat. But if you’re roasting a whole turkey, it's fine to cook it as normal - so that it doesn't dry out — then remove the skin when you carve your meat.

Turkey is high in protein

A 100g serving of roasted white turkey meat provides about 28.8g of protein, while dark turkey meat provides about 26.9g per 100g).

To put this into perspective, 100g servings of:

  • tofu provides 7.1g of protein
  • chicken provides approximately 28g of protein
  • roast beef provides around 28.6g of protein

The British Nutrition Foundation says that adult men should aim to eat approximately 56g of protein per day, while women should eat 45g per day.

This means that a 100g serving of white turkey meat provides more than half of your recommended daily intake, while containing much less fat than other meats.

Can you eat too much protein?

Although protein is an important nutrient, eating too much can cause waste to build up in your blood - putting strain on your kidneys and worsening any pre-existing kidney problems.

To prevent this, experts recommend that you avoid consuming more than twice the recommended daily intake of protein.

Turkey is a good source of B vitamins, zinc and iron

Turkey also supplies a number of important vitamins and minerals — including zinc, selenium niacin (vitamin B3) and vitamin B12.

In fact, 100g of white turkey meat provides:

  • 11.6mg of niacin (that’s 72% or 83% of your RDA, depending on whether you’re a man or a woman)
  • 1.6mg of zinc (14% of your RDA if you’re a man, 20% for a woman)
  • 0.763mg of vitamin B6 (58% of your RDA)
  • 29.9mcg of selenium (53% of your RDA)
  • 0.8mcg of vitamin B12 (34% of your RDA)

Zinc helps your body to make new cells and enzymes, and it’s also thought to help with the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in your food.

Selenium is important because it helps to keep your immune system working properly, and prevents damage to cells and tissues, while B vitamins help your body to release energy from food.

Which bit of the turkey is best?

White turkey meat (from the breast) contains less fat and slightly more protein than dark turkey meat. But dark turkey meat contains more zinc, selenium and vitamin B12.

Here's a side-by-side comparison using data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

 

What about processed turkey products?

Processed turkey meat is any form of turkey meat that’s been preserved using a process like salting, smoking, marinating or curing. Pre-cooked and packaged turkey slices are a good example.

These products often contain a lot of salt and other preservatives — including chemicals like potassium nitrate, which is thought to increase your risk of bowel cancer. Too much salt in your diet can also lead to high blood pressure.

It’s probably best to avoid processed meat if you can — sticking to fresh turkey instead.

What’s the best way to prepare turkey?

Try to avoid frying meat whenever you can. Instead, try baking, grilling, roasting or adding your meat to a stir-fry.

If you do have to brown or fry meat, try to pour off the fat afterwards, and if you’re roasting a turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving, try to put it on a metal rack above your roasting tin so that the fat in the meat can run off and collect in the bottom.

Key points

  • turkey provides plenty of protein, and several important vitamins and minerals
  • white turkey meat is relatively low in fat, but dark turkey meat and some ground turkey products may contain more fat than you think
  • turkey skin also contains a lot of saturated fat so try to remove it if you can
  • white turkey meat is generally healthier, but dark turkey meat does contain more zinc, selenium and vitamin B12
  • you can further reduce the fat content of turkey by choosing healthy ways to cook it, and roasting whole birds on a metal rack
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