"If you're going to eat meat, turkey is one of the best ones to eat," says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado in Denver. "What gets us in trouble at Thanksgiving is all the stuff we eat with it."
Skinless turkey breast has a lot of protein. It doesn't have a lot of fat or calories. Consider these stats from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory:
Compared with skinless chicken breast (which is considered very lean) skinless turkey breast has almost as much protein, but 18% fewer calories, 79% less fat and 76% less saturated fat.
Skinless dark turkey meat has less protein and more fat and calories than skinless breast meat. But it's a pretty good food nonetheless -- not much fattier than skinless chicken breast and much less fatty than lean ground beef.
If you opt to leave the skin on your turkey, the calorie amounts go up by more than 10%, and the fat amounts go up much more -- by nearly 65% for dark meat and more than 300% for breast meat.
Yet even with skin, breast meat has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat without skin. And dark meat with skin is fairly comparable to lean ground beef -- a few more calories, a little more fat, but also a little more protein and quite a bit less saturated fat. (See the accompanying chart.)
Turkey is also a good source of several minerals and vitamins, including iron (in the form most easily absorbed), niacin (helpful for increasing good HDL cholesterol), selenium (which has antioxidant properties), zinc (important for the immune system and wound-healing) and vitamin B6 (important for the immune system).
Parts of the bird differ nutritionally for functional reasons: Meat is basically muscle, and both the fat content and the color of turkey meat are determined by the kind of exercise different muscles get.
Turkeys do a lot of standing and walking around. The energy for this slow, steady exercise comes from burning fat, which requires oxygen (i.e., it's aerobic). So the leg and thigh muscles (responsible for the standing and walking) need to have some fat around as well as a good supply of oxygen. Oxygen is stored in a red protein called myoglobin, which makes muscles, or meat, dark.
The muscles in a turkey's breast and wings are meant to be used to fly, which wild turkeys can do for short distances, though domestic ones no longer can. Brief flights require brief spurts of intense exertion, and for that muscles burn glucose, not fat. This does not require oxygen (i.e., it's anaerobic) so these muscles have much less myoglobin, and that's why the meat is white.
The fat distributed throughout the thigh and leg meat is only a small portion of the fat in a turkey. Most of it is deposited in or under the skin or inside the abdominal cavity. This is very handy for diet-conscious consumers, says Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis. "You can just pull the fat off if you don't want to eat it. The marbling in beef makes it much harder to extract."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Different ways to slice a turkey
When it comes to calories, fat and protein, how do various parts of the turkey compare, and how do they stack up against chicken and lean beef? Data for 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of cooked meat:
Turkey breast (skinless)
Total fat: 0.7 gram
Saturated fat:0.2 gram
Dark turkey meat (skinless)
Total fat: 4.3 grams
Saturated fat:1.5 grams
Turkey breast (with skin)
Total fat: 3.2 grams
Saturated fat:0.9 grams
Dark turkey meat (with skin)
Total fat: 7.1 grams
Saturated fat:2.1 grams
Chicken breast (skinless)
Total fat: 3.6 grams
Saturated fat:1 grams
95% lean ground beef
Total fat: 6.6 grams
Saturated fat:3 grams
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory
Los Angeles Times