Thanksgiving 101: Everything You Need to Know About Turkey


thanksgiving turkey

The big day is here. But, do you know how to prepare for it?

Don’t let this day spoil your healthy diet. Here’s everything you need to know about making this day better than ever.

When it comes to eating habits, Thanksgiving is the great equalizer. It’s a heavily anticipated day pretty much all year. Name one person who doesn’t look forward to this socially acceptable feast of turkey, gravy, stuffing, and pie.

No matter how responsibly and healthy we may eat on the other 364 days, we pretty much all indulge in the salty, buttery and sweet temptations of this classic holiday. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. With changing attitudes about health and an ever-evolving culinary mindset, Thanksgiving dinner no longer has to mark the end of your carefully considered diet.

With the centerpiece—all hail the turkey—a powerhouse of protein and other essential nutrients, this holiday can actually serve as a model of good nutrition for the rest of the year. The following points will help you make healthy choices when the rest of your relatives are putting away their second helping of green bean casserole.

Turkey: A Nutrient Powerhouse!

Turkey, in particular white meat turkey without skin, is exceptionally high in protein and low in fat. A 3.5 oz. portion of white meat turkey (about the size of a deck of cards) has 30 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat. A person of average weight (150 pounds) requires about 55 grams of protein per day. A serving of turkey meets nearly half their recommended daily intake.

The protein found in turkey helps to keep you satiated, keeping you fuller longer while also stabilizing insulin levels to prevent a sugar crash. In terms of minerals, turkey is richest in selenium, providing over 60% of our daily reference intake.

Selenium is an essential trace mineral responsible for the protection of cell membranes from oxidative damage. According to a Journal of Nutrition article, optimal selenium levels are also associated with lower depressive symptoms and a positive mood.

Turkey is also a great source of niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, the amino acid tryptophan, iron and choline. Skinless, roasted white turkey meat, because of its lower fat levels, has lower levels of cholesterol than chicken, pork, or beef. 

The Tryptophan Factor in Turkey…

Tryptophan, an amino acid found not just in turkey, but also in most meat and many vegetables, has always been implicated in the feeling of the drowsiness one feels after eating a “Thanksgiving meal”. The truth is that turkey isn’t even a particularly rich source of tryptophan. In fact, soybeans contain twice the level of tryptophan.

Tryptophan is lesser known as an amino acid responsible for the activation of T cells, an important immune system cell that seeks out and destroys cancer cells. It’s also important for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for positive feelings, which eventually gets converted into melatonin, which causes sleepiness.

But, the amount of tryptophan in turkey isn’t significant enough to produce feelings of drowsiness on its own. The most likely culprit of the sleepiness we all feel after eating a plate of turkey with all the fixings is the high amount of carbs that are traditionally involved in the meal. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, biscuits and pumpkin pie all contain high levels of carbs. These can cause your blood pressure to spike and then, inevitably, to plummet and produce a groggy effect.

dark meat turkey

White Turkey Meat Versus Dark

The white meat versus dark meat debate involves the weighing of several factors. Overall, removing the skin from either type of meat significantly reduces calorie and fat levels.

A 3.5 oz. portion of skinless white meat contains 30 grams of protein, 161 calories and 4 grams of fat.

The same portion with the skin intact contains 29 grams of protein, 194 calories and 8 grams of fat.

A piece of dark meat of the same portion size, with the skin removed, contains 29 grams of protein, 192 calories and 8 grams of fat.

If you were to eat the same portion of dark meat along with its skin, you would be consuming 27 grams of protein, 232 calories and 13 grams of fat.

Clearly, choosing white meat is a better option when considering the ratio of calories to protein. But, dark meat turkey has a higher level of iron, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. It’s also richer in bioavailable zinc. This helps boost the immune system and promotes healthy wound healing and cell division.

Both white and dark meat provide an array of vitamins and minerals vital to a nutritious diet. A 3.5 oz. portion of light meat turkey contains about 5 mg of niacin. Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is an essential component of two coenzymes involved in DNA repair and macronutrient metabolism. It’s especially important in the metabolism of protein and in cellular processes related to energy production.

A 3.5 oz. portion of dark meat turkey contains about 3 mg of zinc, an essential trace mineral that plays a substantial role in maintaining a healthy immune system. This is nearly twice the zinc content of white meat turkey. In the end, a mixed serving of both white and dark meat (skin removed) will supply you with high levels of protein, healthy fats, essential minerals, and vitamins.

It’s All In How You Prepare It!

It should come as no shock that the average American consumes 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat throughout the course of Thanksgiving Day. With trends such as deep-fried turkey, sausage-laden stuffing, cream-based casseroles, breads and pies galore, those dreaded numbers start hitting the ceiling in the blink of an eye.

Luckily, there are steps we can take to prevent excess fat and calories from creeping onto our menu. And, it all starts with the preparation of the bird. To start, make sure to seek out a pasture raised turkey instead of one that was raised in a factory farm.

Turkeys that have spent ample time outside feeding on a natural and mixed variety of vegetation will have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Eating turkey with this nutrient level has been shown to reduce pancreatic cancer risk. As well, factory-farmed turkeys are high in antibiotics, hormones and are even injected with water and salt for preservation purposes.

Should You Deep Fry Or Roast Turkey?

Consider how you will prepare the bird. A 3 oz. portion of deep-fried turkey will set you back 195 calories and 21 grams of fat. That’s more than three times the fat found in roasted white meat turkey.

Roasting your turkey with fresh herbs and citrus fruits will incorporate a ton of flavor into the bird while keeping your calorie and fat count at a minimum. Avoid slathering the skin with tons of butter. A simple light sprinkling of salt on the exterior will ensure that moisture will be kept inside the meat, producing a juicy and delicious turkey.

Cooking the turkey with the skin on ensures optimal moisture, flavor and aroma. And, doing so doesn’t notably increase the fat content of the meat. Simply remove the skin when you’re ready to serve and then enjoy. A typical serving of Thanksgiving turkey is 6 oz. To reduce your caloric and fat intake, reduce that serving by half.

Sides Matter!

Let’s face it. Compared to the smorgasbord of carb and fat laden sides typical of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, the turkey is starting to look like the most Spartan contender of the entire ordeal. Considering the overall nutrient density of turkey compared to its calorie and fat content, it is, in reality, one of the smarter things on your plate this holiday season. The majority of our caloric intake on Thanksgiving Day comes from sides, with a large portion of those calories coming from fat and carbs.

Want proof of the very high side dish stats? One cup of mashed potatoes with milk and butter contains about 237 calories, 8.9 grams of fat and 35.2 grams of carbs. A cup of traditional stuffing has 352 calories, 16 grams of fat and 43.6 grams of carbs. A 2 oz. piece of cornbread has 160 calories, 5.4 grams of fat and 23.96 grams of carbs. A mere half-cup of sweet potato casserole with marshmallow topping has a whopping 210 calories, 9 grams of fat and 30 grams of carbs.

Finish it all off with a slice of pumpkin pie, and you’re looking at 323 calories, 14.63 grams of fat and 40.9 grams of carbs. The numbers really start to add up, and we haven’t even mentioned wine!

healthy turkey

Here Are Some Ideas For Healthy Swaps

Making healthy substitutions while preparing these sides will cut calories and fat. It’ll also boost the overall nutritional content of your meal. Leaving the skin on mashed potatoes, or roasting potatoes whole, increases the amount of fiber in the dish.

This simple act will help keep you fuller longer and support healthy digestion. It also preserves nutrients such as vitamin C and B6, potassium, zinc and protein that normally leach out during the cooking process.

Instead of folding butter or sour cream into your mashed potatoes, swap olive oil and Greek yogurt, or roast garlic in the oven until creamy and fold into your spuds. The same goes for gravy. The drippings from the turkey should provide enough fat to make a creamy sauce without having to pad it with extra butter. Adding fresh herbs to your gravy will also provide optimal flavor while keeping your caloric intake low.

Making smart choices for each side will ensure a healthier overall Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of studding your stuffing with fatty sausage, include toasted pecans, fresh herbs and plenty of healthy veggies to make a delicious and nutritious side.

Pecans are high in thiamin, copper, manganese and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They also taste great alongside traditional holiday flavors. If you do opt to use sausage in your stuffing, choose lean turkey sausage over pork sausage. Why? You guessed it, to save calories and reduce levels of saturated fat.

Making your own breadcrumbs for stuffing with whole grain bread as opposed to using white bread or buying a boxed mix will increase fiber and protein content. Eating whole grains helps reduce stroke risk, diabetes and heart disease. It’s also helpful in healthy weight maintenance.

As an added bonus, it’ll help prevent a blood sugar spike and crash.

Remove unhealthy preservatives, excess sodium and sugar from your Thanksgiving meal. Do so by avoiding processed goods and choosing whole foods as much as possible. Choose fresh as opposed to canned green beans for casserole.

Create your own gravy instead of making one from a boxed mix. Opt for fresh cranberry salad instead of serving canned cranberry jelly. These simple choices will increase the nutrient content of your meal while decreasing the toxic load of unwanted preservatives, flavor enhancers and other additives on your body.

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While overeating seems inevitable on Thanksgiving and other holidays centered around the dinner table, making healthy choices on ingredients and preparation will save calories and ensure that you and your loved ones are getting the proper nutrition.

Focus on healthy turkey prep. Opt for whole foods over boxed mixes in your sides. Sub add-ons such as butter and sour cream with healthier options.

All of this will greatly improve the overall nutritional value of your Thanksgiving feast. And, less calories during the meal means you may even get away with having that extra glass of wine at dinner. The big day is here. And, now you know how to approach it. So stop thinking about how much extra time you’ll have to spend in the gym to work it off. This year it’s all about enjoying!

– Lillian Dumont


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Gym Junkies Founder & Editor in Chief at Gym Junkies LLC
I’m Terry and I’m here to help you achieve your fitness goals. I truly believe anyone can achieve the figure they want with the proper guidance. Through my extensive fitness blog, top fitness videos, leading workout supplements, and top selling eBooks, I have been able to help thousands of people online lose weight, tone up and get in shape. My passion is helping people all around the world change their lives for the better.
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