Dark meat vs. white meat: which turkey is healthier?

Published on November 18 2011 - 4:47 PM
Dark meat vs. white meat: which turkey is healthier?

Turkey Day is around the corner and many of us are gearing up for a big Thanksgiving feast. As a registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, I’m often asked about the healthiest and worst holiday foods. (Green Bean Casserole or Sweet Potato Casserole? Gravy or Cranberry Sauce? Find out the Best & Worst Thanksgiving Foods.)

Although I’m not into “judging” foods, it can be hard to ignore the nutritional differences between foods. Take turkey, for example.

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Turkey is one of the most straightforward dishes on the Thanksgiving table. Sure, there are ways to up the sinful factor (my sister, for instance, sometimes insists that we dress the bird in strips of bacon before roasting it), but a basic roast turkey has little in the way of caloric surprises. Which brings us to the important question—which is healthier: white or dark meat?

Ounce for ounce, white turkey breast meat trumps dark meat, calorically speaking. Per 3 ounces, opting for white meat over dark will save you 45 calories and 6 grams of saturated fat: 115 calories and 0 grams of saturated fat versus 160 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat, respectively. Both white and dark meat are a good source of protein, offering 26 and 24 grams per serving, respectively.  Dark meat does, however, have at least one nutritional advantage over white meat—it delivers more iron (11% of the daily value, compared to 7% in turkey breast).

Other turkey traps to avoid: 1) Watch your portion size. Although 3 ounces of white meat is a lean 115 calories, an overgenerous 8-ounce serving would set you back by 306 calories...even before pouring on the gravy or digging into sides. 2) Go skinless: Crispy turkey skin is little more than saturated fat. A 3-ounce serving of white meat with skin clocks in at 160 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat. The same amount of dark meat with skin will cost you 190 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat.

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So what’s the final verdict? Considering all the factors, white turkey breast meat is the healthier choice. Of course, if you love dark meat, go for it—after all, Thanksgiving comes but once a year!

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Kerri-Ann Jennings is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University.