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Turkey: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Turkey is a centerpiece for many holiday meals. The turkey, scientifically known as Meleagris gallopavo, is a large bird native to North America. However, its popularity extends worldwide, as its meat is highly nutritious and contains many essential vitamins and minerals.

Turkey provides the amino acids necessary for muscle growth and repair, and its micronutrients can support brain function, energy production, immune health, and more. It has a great nutrition profile, offering many health benefits during the holidays and beyond.

Protein, composed of amino acids, serves many roles in the body. It acts as structural support to cells and is essential for the function of many biological systems. Protein is necessary for transporting various nutrients involved in immune function, energy production, and fluid balance throughout the body.

However, protein’s most notable role in the body is related to muscle growth and repair. Amino acids are often called the building blocks of life, so protein sources are essential to building muscle.

Turkey is rich in protein. One 4-ounce (oz) serving of turkey breast provides approximately 27 grams (g) of protein and all nine essential amino acids needed for muscle growth. Adding turkey to a well-balanced diet may be especially beneficial for those trying to lose weight or increase their lean muscle mass.

Additionally, research indicates that poultry, like turkey, might be a healthier protein source than its red meat counterparts. Turkey is low in fat, unlike red meat, which has been connected with increased cardiovascular and cancer risks. Those with a history of heart health concerns or a risk of developing cancer may prefer to get their protein from turkey.

B vitamins are involved in many significant systems in the body. Turkey contains vitamins B1 and B2 but is especially rich in vitamins B3, B6, and B12.

  • Vitamin B3: Vitamin B3, or niacin, is involved in cell communication and energy production. One 4 oz serving of turkey provides 11.2 milligrams (mg) of vitamin B3 or 70% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
  • Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, plays a supporting role in amino acid formation and production of neurotransmitters. A 4 oz serving of turkey provides 0.919 mg of vitamin B6, which is 54% of the highest RDA.
  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is essential for red blood cell formation and DNA synthesis. A 4 oz serving of turkey provides 0.712 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12 or 30% of the RDA.

Increasing vitamin B levels through turkey intake may benefit those experiencing depression, migraine headaches, and skin lesions, as research has connected vitamins B3, B6, and B12 accordingly. However, it should not replace regular medical care with your doctor.

In addition to its potent vitamin profile, turkey contains minerals, such as selenium, zinc, and phosphorus, that support many avenues of health.

  • Selenium: Selenium is involved in the production of thyroid hormones, which help regulate your metabolism and growth rate. One 4 oz serving of turkey provides 25.7 mcg of selenium or 47% of the RDA.
  • Zinc: Zinc is an influential mineral needed for many biological processes. It is involved in gene expression, enzyme reactions, and protein synthesis. A 4 oz serving of turkey provides 1.45 mg of zinc, which is approximately 13% of the RDA.
  • Phosphorus: Phosphorus is required for a diverse collection of processes within the body, including bone mineralization and cell signaling. It is also a critical component in the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate, the body’s primary energy source. A 4 oz serving of turkey provides 227 mg of phosphorus, which is 32% of the mineral’s RDA.

Turkey can support healthy aging through its mineral content, supporting many bodily processes involved in health. A single serving can help you meet several of your estimated micronutrient needs. However, those with kidney concerns should talk with their doctor or registered dietitian to ensure their portion sizes and corresponding minerals do not conflict with their renal function.

Turkey boasts an impressive nutrition profile. It’s a nutrient-dense food, rich in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat. Plus, it contains various vitamins and minerals, offering an expansive array of health benefits.

A 4 oz serving of turkey breast provides:

  • Calories: 129
  • Fat: 1.67 g
  • Saturated fat: 0.327 g
  • Sodium: 128 mg
  • Carbohydrates: 0.158 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Protein: 26.8 g
  • Vitamin B3: 11.2 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.919 mg
  • Vitamin B12: 0.712 mcg
  • Selenium: 25.7 mcg
  • Zinc: 1.45 mg
  • Phosphorus: 227 mg

As mentioned above, turkey can contribute significantly to many daily nutrient needs. Furthermore, since it is a lean protein source, it can support weight management goals and overall health without overdoing it on calories.

Turkey is a healthy protein source, but it’s important to consider alternatives for those with dietary restrictions or preferences. Diet plays a direct role in health, affecting many biological systems.

For example, those living with gout may need to moderate their turkey intake, as research has shown that poultry can increase the build-up of uric acid, a precursor to the painful condition. Additionally, those with compromised renal function may need to be mindful of their portion sizes as the protein and mineral content must be processed through the kidneys.

It’s also important to be aware of how turkey is prepared. Many store-bought options are high in sodium, which can affect blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. A medical doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist can help design a nutrition care plan that includes turkey and best addresses your needs.

Turkey gets a lot of hype around the holidays, but it can be a nutritious addition to a healthy diet all year round. Consider these tips when incorporating turkey into your meals and snacks: 

  • Keep raw meat separate from produce and other foods by using different cutting boards when preparing ingredients.
  • When cooking turkey, the recommended internal temperature is 165 F. Test in three places, including the thickest part of the breast, the inner part of the thigh, and the inner part of the wing.
  • Try seasoning the turkey with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Turkey pairs well with whole grains and vegetables for a hearty meal. However, small portions of leftovers can easily boost the protein of snacks.

Turkey’s delicious flavor and vast nutritional benefits are often highlighted during the holidays. It’s a vital part of many traditional feasts. However, turkey meat has much to offer year-round. It is a lean protein source that’s low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals. It contains a significant percentage of the RDA for many vitamins, including vitamins B3, B6, and B12.

The body can use the nutrients found in turkey meat to support energy production, red cell formation, and metabolism regulation. Plus, its prominent protein content is an excellent conductor of muscle protein synthesis. Including turkey in a well-balanced diet is an efficient way to support muscle growth and repair, especially when exercising regularly.

Of course, nutrition needs are very individualized based on various factors, including age, physical activity levels, medical history, and health goals. Be mindful of portion sizes and consider how they may affect daily totals. A registered dietitian can answer questions regarding turkey and its purported benefits in your health journey.

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