Harvard Health Publications

Turkey: a healthy base of holiday meals

Posted By Patrick J. Skerrett On November 19, 2012

Done just right, Thanksgiving dinner can be good for the heart. The bird at the center of the feast was once in line to be our country’s mascot. Benjamin Franklin and other turkey aficionados thought of this fowl as wild, wary to the point of genius, and courageous. When cooked, it has another excellent quality—turkey meat is easy on the heart. Actually, so are other mainstays of traditional Thanksgiving feasts.

Talking turkey

If you are looking for a lean cut of meat, turkey is hard to beat. A 3-ounce serving of skinless white meat contains 26 grams of protein, barely 2 grams of fat, and under 1 gram of saturated fat. A 3-ounce serving of prime rib has less protein and a lot more fat—28 grams of total fat and more than 11 grams of saturated fat, or half the recommended daily amount for someone needing about 2,200 calories a day. (See how other meats stack up in Comparing holiday entrées below). Turkey has fewer calories, too.

Dark meat has more saturated fat than white meat, and eating the skin adds a hefty wallop of these bad fats.

Turkey is also a good source of arginine. As with other amino acids, the body uses this one to make new protein. Arginine is also the raw material for making nitric oxide, a substance that relaxes and opens arteries. Whether foods rich in arginine help keep arteries open has prompted both research and debate.

The rest of the feast

We tend to think of Thanksgiving dinner with a guilty smile. Yet several traditional foods are essentially healthy.

Cranberries. The fruit that provides the base of this traditional side dish deserves to move from holidays to everydays. Cranberries are packed with dozens of different antioxidants. On a standard test that measures the ability of food to neutralize unstable molecules that can damage DNA, proteins, cell membranes, and cellular machinery, the cranberry is near the top of the list (along with its cousin, the blueberry, as well as blackberries, artichokes, beans, and prunes). The natural mix of antioxidants found in cranberries and other foods is what matters, not the high doses of single ones found in supplements. If you make your own cranberry sauce from whole berries, you’ll get a tastier and less sugary sauce than you can get out of a can.

Sweet potatoes. These un-potatoes—they’re related to the morning glory, not the white potato—are an excellent source of vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.

Pumpkin. Before this orange squash is made into pie, it’s just plain good for you. Pumpkin is low in fat, low in calories, and loaded with potassium, vitamin A, beta carotene, and vitamin C.

Pecans. Most nuts are great sources of heart-healthy fats. Pecans are no exception. Twenty pecan halves contain about 20 grams of unsaturated fat. Studies from around the globe show that people who routinely eat nuts are less likely to die of heart disease than those who don’t.

Keeping better company

Although many of the foods that grace a Thanksgiving table are healthy on their own, they tend to lose their virtue by the company they keep. Brown sugar, butter, and marshmallows overshadow the goodness of sweet potatoes. The benefits of pumpkin and pecans are overwhelmed when baked into pies with cream, eggs, butter, and sugar.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re set on a traditional dinner, alternative recipes abound for healthier stuffing, vegetables, and desserts. You can also start your own traditions. After all, today’s Thanksgiving dinner bears little resemblance to the original feast.

Don’t get carried away focusing on fat. Calories count just as much as fat. Controlling your portions so you don’t end the meal feeling as stuffed as your Thanksgiving turkey will go a long way toward protecting your heart, and your waistline.

Comparing holiday entrées

3-ounce serving Calories Protein (grams) Total fat (grams) Saturated fat (grams)
Turkey, light meat

125

26

1.7

0.5

Turkey, light meat and skin

150

25

4.7

1.4

Turkey, dark meat

147

24

5.1

1.5

Chicken, light meat

130

23

3.5

1.4

Chicken, light meat and skin

189

25

9.2

2.3

Chicken, dark meat

151

20

7.4

2.1

Coho salmon

151

21

7.0

1.6

Ham, boneless

151

19

7.7

2.6

Beef tenderloin, lean

275

20

20.9

8.3

Leg of lamb

162

24

6.6

2.4

Duck, meat only

171

20

9.5

3.4

Duck, meat and skin

286

16

24.1

8.2

Goose, meat only

202

25

10.7

3.9

Goose, meat and skin

259

21

18.6

5.8

Prime rib, lean

334

19

27.8

11.5

Updated and revised from the Harvard Heart Letter, November 2004

Related Information: Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition

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