The Health Benefits of Turkey

As you prepare for your Thanksgiving feast with family and friends, it’s likely that turkey will be on the menu (and star in your  delicious leftovers for days after that, too). But you might wonder at some point, “Is turkey actually good for me?” A lot of my clients actually ask me that very question. Here are the turkey nutrition facts worth knowing:

Turkey is rich in B vitamins and minerals

A three-ounce portion of roasted turkey breast without the skin provides about 120 calories, 25 grams of protein, 0 grams of carb, and 2 grams of fat. Turkey also contains B vitamins and minerals, including a significant amount of selenium, which also acts as an antioxidant. And turkey supplies smaller amounts of zinc, magnesium, and potassium. Dark meat provides more vitamins and minerals, but it’s also higher in calories and fat.

Pasture-raised birds have even more nutrients

You may see different terms on turkey packaging, like “free-range,” or “cage-free.”  But the one that truly has meaning is “pasture-raised.” This means the birds are allowed time to forage outdoors. Their exposure to sunlight and a more diverse, natural diet, increases their levels of nutrients, including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

Organic turkey is antibiotic free

That’s important, because about 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for animal agriculture—a practice that is contributing to antibiotic resistance, according to both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while drug-resistant bacteria are problematic in many ways, they also can contaminate food after slaughter, and spread to other farms. One recent study found that even fresh produce items purchased from grocery stores were tainted with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Turkey leftovers can star in healthy meals for days

Add leftover chopped turkey breast to garden salads, stir-fries, chili, and soup. Or make a mayo-free turkey salad with chopped turkey and other diced veggies, such as red bell pepper, celery, red onion, and spinach. Toss with dairy-free pesto, olive tapanade, mashed avocado, or seasoned tahini. (For safety, eat or toss leftover turkey within three to four days.)

Getting excited about Turkey Day? Here are a few more bird-related tips:

You need to cook the meat properly

Even if you do buy an organic, pasture-raised turkey, consuming an undercooked bird, or allowing juices to cross-contaminate other foods, can cause food poisoning. Do not thaw a frozen turkey at room temperature. Thaw it in the fridge, which takes about 24 hours for every four to five pounds. Use separate surfaces, plates, and utensils for handling pre-cooked turkey versus other foods. And be sure to cook your turkey long enough. Use a food thermometer to ensure that the temperature reaches 165 F at the thickest portions of the breast, thigh, and wing joint.

Turkey won't make you sleepy

Turkey is often cited as a food that causes drowsiness because it contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor to the calming neurotransmitter serotonin. But the truth is, the amount of tryptophan in turkey isn’t enough to send you off to dreamland. (Other foods, such as chicken, nuts, and seeds, contain as much or more tryptophan than turkey.) If you tend to feel sleepy after your Thanksgiving feast, it’s probably due to the heaviness of the meal overall. Eating a large meal causes your body to divert blood flow from your brain toward your digestive system, and than can leave you ready for a couch nap.

Pulses are a good plant-based alternative

If you’re trying to eat less meat (or you have a vegetarian at your table), consider pulses in place of poultry. Pulses include lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas. You can use them to make a loaf type dish, hearty soup, or simply cook them with garlic and herbs. In addition to being naturally gluten free and a good source of plant protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, pulses have been shown to help support weight management, reduce waist measurements, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

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Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.

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