By Rachael Link, MS, RD
As Thanksgiving rolls around, most of us eagerly await the holiday staples, like pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. However, the real star of the show is, of course, the turkey. Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be complete without a big hunk of turkey breast sitting on your plate.
But because of its association with a holiday that encourages eating double your own weight in delicious food, many people wonder: Is turkey bad for you? And is turkey low in cholesterol, or is it loaded with extra fat and calories?
The truth is that turkey is not only delicious, but it’s actually low in calories and fat, plus high in several important nutrients — not to mention, it can be enjoyed all year-round, not just during the holiday season.
So if you’re wondering how to cook a turkey breast, how it compares to chicken and why you should incorporate this tasty bird into your diet, keep on reading to find out. Plus, make sure to check out my terrific leftover turkey recipes to get a jump-start on those post-Thanksgiving meals.
Benefits of Eating Turkey and Turkey Breast
- High in Protein
- Promotes Better Sleep
- Aids Weight Loss
- Packed with Selenium
- May Fight Depression
1. It’s High in Protein
Turkey is a good protein food, packing in 14.4 grams per three-ounce serving of turkey breast.
We need protein for just about everything. Not only are our hair, skin and nails made up of proteins, but protein also transports oxygen, aids in blood clotting, and repairs and regenerates tissue cells.
Furthermore, getting enough protein in your diet can help keep your weight under control, promote brain and heart health, and even maintain normal blood sugar levels.
2. It Promotes Better Sleep
If you’ve ever felt your eyelids drooping after indulging in a turkey feast, there’s a good reason. Turkey is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps regulate sleep.
Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin, a hormone that’s involved in controlling your sleep-wake cycle. One analysis made up of 19 studies demonstrated that melatonin can increase total sleep time, reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and improve overall sleep quality. (1)
Increasing your intake of tryptophan has been shown to promote better sleep in multiple studies. It has been shown to increase sleepiness and decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, improve sleep quality in those with sleep disturbances like insomnia, reduce awakenings and increase REM sleep. (2, 3, 4)
3. It Aids in Weight Loss
Turkey is commonly associated with Thanksgiving, a holiday that involves gorging yourself on stuffing, sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes to the point of discomfort. So, is turkey healthy for weight loss, or is turkey fattening?
Turkey meat nutrition is low in calories and high in protein, making it a great dietary addition if you’re looking to shed some pounds. A high-protein diet can help reduce levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, to sidestep cravings and reduce appetite. (5) Protein has also been shown to boost metabolism and decrease caloric intake. (6, 7)
Plus, it takes your body more calories to digest protein than other macronutrients like carbohydrates and fat. This means that you’ll spend more calories on digestion and end up with a smaller amount of usable calories by eating high-protein foods like turkey rather than foods high in carbohydrates or fat. (8)
4. It’s Packed with Selenium
Turkey is a good source of selenium, supplying 27 percent of your daily selenium requirement in each three-ounce serving. This mineral plays a central role in many aspects of health. Selenium benefits your metabolism, increases immunity, and acts as an antioxidant to protect against free radical damage and inflammation.
Besides turkey, Brazil nuts, eggs, sunflower seeds, salmon and chia seeds are all other good sources of selenium that can help ensure that you’re getting enough of this essential mineral.
5. It May Help Fight Depression
Thanks to its high tryptophan content, turkey may also aid in the treatment of conditions like depression. This is because tryptophan is able to boost the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is found in the brain, digestive tract and blood platelets. Serotonin is thought to control mood balance, and a deficit has been linked to a higher risk of depression. (11)
In one study from Quebec, tryptophan depletion was shown to significantly lower mood in healthy women. (12) A review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews also concluded that tryptophan was more effective at treating depression than a placebo, although researchers noted that more evidence is needed. (13)
In addition to increasing your tryptophan intake from foods like turkey, other natural remedies for depression include exercising, eating a healthy diet, taking probiotics, and getting enough vitamin D through either sun exposure or supplementation.
Turkey nutrition is low in calories and carbohydrates but loaded with important nutrients like protein, selenium, phosphorus and riboflavin.
A three-ounce (84 grams) serving of turkey breast contains approximately: (14)
- 87 calories
- 3.6 grams carbohydrates
- 14.4 grams protein
- 1.5 grams fat
- 0.3 grams fiber
- 19.2 micrograms selenium (27 percent DV)
- 136.2 milligrams phosphorus (15 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligrams riboflavin (15 percent DV)
- 4.8 milligrams vitamin C (9 percent DV)
Turkey breast also contains some iron, potassium, zinc, thiamin and vitamin B6.
Best Parts of the Turkey to Eat
People have differing opinions on which part of the turkey is best in terms of taste. Some prefer white meat found in the breast and wings while others enjoy the rich flavor of dark meat in the legs and thighs.
There are minute differences between dark and white meat nutritionally, but these are mostly negligible. Although dark meat typically contains slightly more calories, cholesterol and fat than white meat, it’s also higher in iron, zinc and B vitamins.
If you’re looking to cut calories and fat, be sure to opt for skinless turkey whenever possible. This part of the turkey is higher in calories and fat but low in the nutrients you’ll find in the other areas of the turkey.
Additionally, note that there are some slight differences in terms of nutrition for other forms of turkey, like ground or sliced turkey. Ground turkey can contain both white and dark meat, and the ground turkey nutrition facts can vary based on fat content. Sliced turkey nutrition, on the other hand, tends to be high in sodium, which is added to extend shelf life. Although the calories in turkey breast lunch meat are comparable, it’s best to stick to fresh or ground whenever possible to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.
Turkey Breast vs. Chicken Breast
Turkey and chicken are by far the two most popular types of poultry, loved for their distinct flavor as well as the convenience and nutrients that they offer. But is turkey healthier than chicken?
In comparing turkey breast vs. chicken breast, turkey contains slightly less tryptophan than chicken but is also lower in calories. Turkey breast protein is also just slightly higher than chicken, and it also tends to be lower in fat.
However, although turkey does have a slight edge over chicken in several aspects, the differences between these two types of poultry are very minor. Both can be healthy and nutritious ways to boost protein intake and squeeze in some important vitamins and minerals.
If you do decide to go with chicken over turkey, remember to opt for organic, free-range chicken to prevent disruptions in hormone levels and adverse effects on your health.
How and Where to Find the Best Turkey Breast
Different people may have different ideas of what defines a good turkey. For example, fresh birds offer more flavor, but frozen turkey is typically a better value for your money. Frozen turkeys can also be convenient if you’re shopping ahead of time and have time to spare to thaw it out before cooking.
Although turkeys are widely available at most grocery stores, the quality and taste can vary depending on the brand, with Butterball turkey breast tasting much different than Jennie-O or Diestel. Look for free-range, organic turkey, and opt for turkey that is antibiotic-free whenever possible to ensure you’re getting the best quality.
Additionally, during peak seasons, many stores offer the chance to reserve your turkey ahead of time so you don’t end up stuck with whatever’s left over the night before Thanksgiving.
Generally, it’s recommended to get at least one pound of turkey per person — or 1.5 pounds each if you’re hoping to have some leftovers in your fridge for later.
How to Cook Turkey and Turkey Recipes
Once you have your turkey, it’s time to fire up the oven and get cooking. Here’s how to cook a turkey that will go great with your next holiday meal:
- If using a frozen turkey, start by thawing in the refrigerator or covering in cold water to unfreeze.
- Next, remove the giblets from the inside of the turkey. You can save these for later and use to make gravy or stuffing.
- Rinse your turkey both inside and out, then pat dry with a paper towel.
- Stuff your turkey loosely (if desired) by allotting between 1/2–3/4 cup of stuffing for each pound of turkey.
- Next, truss your turkey by using a string to tie the drumsticks together.
- Use a brush to coat the skin of the turkey with oil or melted butter.
- Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey thigh to monitor the temperature. Be sure that the thermometer is pointing toward the body of the turkey and is not touching the bone.
- Put turkey on a roasting pan and place in an oven preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Allow the turkey to roast until the skin has turned golden, then cover with foil to keep it from browning further. Uncover during the last 45 minutes of cooking to finish browning the skin.
- Your turkey should be done cooking when the temperature has reached at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the thigh and 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the breast and/or stuffing.
Note that the general turkey breast cooking time per pound is about 20 minutes, though that can vary based on whether or not your turkey is stuffed. Refer to a turkey breast cooking time chart for a more accurate estimation of how long your turkey will take to cook, and remember to ensure that it has reached a safe temperature before eating.
Looking for a quicker way to enjoy turkey without roasting an entire bird? There are tons of turkey breast recipes available online for you to try out. A quick Internet search can reveal a plethora of boneless turkey breast recipes, turkey breast fillet recipes and even leftover turkey recipes that can help you use up whatever you have left after a big holiday feast.
To make it even easier, here are a few turkey breast recipe ideas to get you started:
- Turkey Breakfast Sausage
- Herbed Turkey Breast
- Turkey-Stuffed Bell Peppers
- Crockpot Turkey Stew
- Turkey Stir Fry
Turkey Breast History
Nowadays, turkey takes centerstage during the holiday season. For many people, Christmas and Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same without whipping out the carving knife and digging in.
The turkey tradition can be traced back several hundred years. Turkey was often considered the best option during the holidays because it was cheaper and easier to raise than other types of poultry, plus big enough to serve an entire family.
Turkey became even more popular following the publication of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, in which Scrooge sends the Cratchit family a large turkey for Christmas. Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, by which point turkey had established its status as the bird of choice for both Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Although uncommon, some people may experience an allergic reaction in response to meat and poultry products, such as turkey. Additionally, some people may have a sensitivity or allergy to certain additives found in processed meat products, such as turkey lunch meat. Food allergy symptoms include hives, congestion, sneezing, headaches, asthma and nausea. If you experience these or any other negative side effects after eating turkey, discontinue use and talk to your doctor.
Food safety is also an important factor to consider when preparing turkey breast. Cooking your turkey to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit is crucial to prevent foodborne illness.
Finally, keep in mind that processed turkey products, like deli meat, tend to be high in sodium. If you’re watching your sodium intake, look for a low-sodium variety, or better yet, go for fresh or ground turkey instead.
Final Thoughts on Turkey Breast
- Turkey is low in calories and fat but high in important nutrients like protein, selenium, phosphorus and riboflavin. It’s also high in tryptophan, an amino acid that could help promote better sleep and fight depression.
- The differences between white and dark meat are negligible, but be sure to opt for skinless if you’re watching your calorie and fat intake. There are plenty of boneless and skinless turkey breast recipe ideas available to get you started.
- Compared to chicken, turkey is slightly lower in calories and fat but higher in protein. Still, both can be nutritious additions to a healthy and well-balanced diet.
- Finally, go for fresh turkey instead of processed turkey to minimize sodium intake, and be sure to cook to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent foodborne illness.
Read Next: 47 Terrific Leftover Turkey Recipes
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