It is hard to picture a holiday feast without the turkey. Whether you are thinking about Thanksgiving or Christmas, turkey is a staple food during certain times of the year.

Although the holidays are a prime time for turkey consumption, turkey is also a popular sandwich meat and alternative to ground beef throughout the year. The United States is the world’s largest producer of turkey meat.

Around 250,000,000 turkeys are raised for consumption every year.

This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods.

It provides a nutritional breakdown of turkey and an in-depth look at its possible health benefits, what kind of turkey you should buy, nutritious recipes that incorporate turkey, and any potential health risks of consuming the meat of this popular bird.

Fast facts on turkey

  • Dark turkey meat typically contains more vitamins and minerals than white turkey meat but also more fat and calories.
  • Turkey should be cooked until its internal temperature reaches 165º Fahrenheit.
  • Pasture-raised turkeys typically have higher omega-3 content than factory-farmed turkeys.
  • Removing the skin of a turkey also removes much of the fat content.
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White and red turkey meat contain different amounts of nutrients.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, 3 ounces or 85 grams (g) of non-enhanced, roasted turkey breast contains:

  • 135 calories
  • 3.26 g of fat
  • 0 g of carbohydrate
  • 24.70 g of protein

In comparison, the same amount of dark roasted turkey meat contains:

  • 173 calories
  • 5.13 g of fat
  • 0 g of carbohydrate
  • 23.55 g of protein

Turkey also contains:

  • vitamins B-6
  • vitamin B-12
  • niacin
  • choline
  • selenium
  • zinc

The dark meat of a turkey tends to contain more vitamins and minerals but also has more fat and calories.

Turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan. This is said to be the cause of people wanting to nap after a big Thanksgiving dinner.

While it is true that turkey contains tryptophan, it does not have a high enough amount to cause sleepiness. In fact, all meats contain tryptophan. Eating turkey at Thanksgiving should not make you any more drowsy than eating a pork chop on an ordinary evening.

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While tryptophan can make people sleepy in large enough amounts, turkey does not contain enough to have the effect and can help to improve mood.

Eating foods like turkey that are high in protein help to increase the feeling of satiety, meaning that they make a person feel fuller for longer.

Getting enough protein helps maintain lean muscle mass and keep insulin levels stable after meals. Protein is, however, the one nutrient that most meat-eaters are already getting in sufficient amounts.

Keep in mind that the amount of protein at each meal matters. You can only absorb so much at one time. Make sure to have a lean protein source at each meal and spread your intake throughout the day. Other good choices for protein include nuts, fish, eggs, dairy, soy, and legumes.

Because much of the fat content in turkey is in the skin, it is easy to remove the skin and eat a leaner, less fattening dish as a result.

The tryptophan content in turkey may help to support healthy levels of serotonin in the body, which promotes alertness and good mood. While quantities are low, this is a possible benefit of eating turkey.

The breast of the turkey has less fat and calories than most other cuts of meat. However, do not assume just because a product is made from turkey that it is better for you. For example, a burger made from ground turkey can contain just as much saturated fat as a beef burger, depending on how much dark meat is included in the ground turkey.

Be sure to check the package for fat content or leanness and compare products.

Limit or avoid processed turkey in the form of deli meats, hot dogs, and turkey bacon, all of which are high in sodium. Even frozen, pre-packed turkey burgers can be full of added salt and preservatives.

Go for fresh, lean, organic, and pasture-raised turkey that has been raised in humane conditions without antibiotics. Factory-farmed and conventionally raised turkeys are often injected with salt, water, and other preservatives during processing to extend shelf life and cut costs. Pasture-raised turkeys with access to vegetation also have a higher omega-3 content than factory-farmed turkeys.

Heritage turkeys are raised in smaller flocks, given access to the outdoors, and allowed extra time for growth. They provide more flavorful meat and are not injected with salt or preservatives.

Make sure to cook the turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165º Fahrenheit to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Try these delicious recipes developed by Registered Dietitians:

Processed turkey products can be high in sodium and harmful to health.

Many processed meats are smoked or made with sodium nitrites. These combine with amines that are naturally present in the meat and form N-nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens.

Studies have shown that processed meats are linked to the development of cancer.

The risks of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, and infertility increase with the level of meat intake. Minimize your intake of all processed turkey products.

Turkey contains the mineral selenium. Some studies have suggested that higher intakes of selenium may decrease the risk of colorectal, prostate, lung, bladder, skin, esophageal, and gastric cancers.

It is the overall diet that is most important in achieving and protecting good health. It is better to eat a range of beneficial foods in moderate amounts than to concentrate on individual nutrients as the gateway to good health.