Health Benefits of Turkey

Turkey is a popular source of meat in the United States. In 2019 alone, people in the U.S. ate 5.3 billion pounds of turkey. That works out to about 16.1 pounds per person.

It’s also twice as much as people ate just 50 years ago. Since then, scientists have learned a lot about the many good things that turkey can do for your health. 

Turkey packs a powerful nutritional punch and it’s healthier overall than red meat. Many people choose it as a replacement for beef in recipes.  

Health Benefits

Turkey is a great source of protein. The body uses protein to build and repair bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, and tissue. Protein is a macronutrient, which means that your body needs a lot of it. Your body can’t store protein, so you need to consume it every day.

As long as you don’t eat too much turkey, it is a healthy way to get the protein you need. It's also a good source of beneficial vitamins and minerals like magnesium and niacin.

Reduced Cancer Risk

Turkey is also an excellent source of selenium. Some studies have shown that a diet rich in the mineral may help to prevent certain kinds of cancer, including:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Scientists have only seen the protective effects of selenium when it’s present in the food you eat. Taking supplements doesn’t appear to have the same effect. To learn more, scientists need to do further research.

Diabetes Management

Turkey is a low glycemic index (GI) food. That means it won’t cause the blood sugar spike that you’d get from more sugar-rich and carb-rich foods. If you have diabetes, including turkey in your diet can help you to keep your blood sugar under control.

Heart Health

Low GI foods like turkey can also help increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol in your body. HDL cholesterol travels through the bloodstream and helps to remove “bad” LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can damage the walls of your arteries and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. By eating foods like turkey that boost your HDL cholesterol, you can increase your resistance to these diseases.

Protection From Cognitive Decline

Turkey and other kinds of poultry are part of the MIND diet. Scientists created the MIND diet to slow the mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia. By eating poultry products like turkey at least twice a week as part of the MIND diet, older adults may preserve their memory and thinking skills.  

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Nutrition

Turkey is rich in many vitamins and minerals, such as:

Nutrients per Serving

A single three-ounce serving (about the size of a deck of cards) of roasted turkey without the skin contains:

Portion Sizes

Turkey is healthy white meat overall, but all meats contain fat. One 3-ounce serving of turkey contains one gram of saturated fat. That’s 6% of your recommended daily intake. To keep your fat intake from turkey at manageable levels, limit your portion size to the recommended single serving.

Additionally, turkey contains significant amounts of tryptophan — an amino acid. A low tryptophan diet is recommended for people with psoriasis.

How to Prepare Turkey

Choosing light meat without the skin is the healthiest way to eat turkey.

It’s also important to choose fresh over processed turkey. One cup of light meat turkey already contains more than 18% of your daily recommended dose of sodium. Processed turkey can have more than 35% of that recommended dose.

The best way to minimize the fat and salt in your turkey is to buy a fresh turkey breast and cook it at home. Avoid frying. Instead, opt to roast your turkey breast in the oven. Serve it with a side of your favorite vegetables or experiment with some of the many turkey breast recipes you can find online.

Here are a few turkey recipe ideas to get you started:

  • Turkey and cheese quesadillas
  • Turkey soup with brown rice
  • Turkey Caesar salad
  • Turkey pot pie
  • Turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich
  • Turkey chili
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 19, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Alzheimer’s & Dementia: “MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging.”

American Diabetes Association: “The 3 R's of Glycemic Index: Recommendations, Research, and the Real World.”

Centers for Disease Control: “Get the Facts: Sodium and the Dietary Guidelines.”

JAMA: “Low-Tryptophan Diet in Treatment of Psoriasis.”

Mayo Clinic: “How meat and poultry fit in your healthy diet.”

National Turkey Federation: "Turkey by the Numbers.”

Scientific Reports: “Selenium Exposure and Cancer Risk: an Updated Meta-analysis and Meta-regression.”

The World’s Healthiest Foods: “What is the Glycemic Index?”

U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Data Central: “Turkey, light meat, skin not eaten.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Data Central: “Turkey, white, rotisserie, deli cut.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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