Before you help yourself to an extra serving of your favorite holiday bird, read this first.
Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Thanksgiving can be stressful if you’re following a diet or if you’re trying to shed a few pounds. But before you panic or decide to leave turkey off your plate, remember this: Thanksgiving is one day out of the year. And it's okay to indulge, as long as you don't make yourself sick. If you try to count calories on Thanksgiving, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. So please, leave your holiday food guilt behind and try to enjoy yourself.

That said, here at Cooking Light, we work hard to help you make every meal—including the big one—as delicious and healthy as possible. From a fresher green bean casserole to a remake of classic stuffing, there are plenty of ways to make every side dish second-helping worthy, and still good-for-you enough that you won't regret eating it later.

But what about the turkey? Is it nutritious? And are there ways to make it healthier?

While turkey is considered to be a leaner protein than beef, not all cuts are equal. From a nutrition perspective, it matters whether you help yourself to skinless breast meat or skin-on thigh meat. The same goes for deep-frying a turkey versus roasting it. (Unsurprisingly, the latter is healthier.)

However, you can build a (reasonably) healthy Thanksgiving plate by having a better sense of the nutrition behind the foods that end up on it. To help you have a relaxing holiday, we’ve pulled together everything you need to know about the nutrition of your favorite bird so you can decide the best way to indulge this year.

Looking for healthier ways to cook a Thanksgiving turkey? Try these easy recipes:

Turkey Nutrition

Credit: Greg DuPree

What exactly is a serving size of turkey? The USDA’s recommended portion size for poultry is about 3 ounces. For turkey, this translates to roughly the same size as a deck of playing cards. And no, that’s not very much.  

Below, find the nutrition breakdown of two white and dark meat turkey cuts—turkey breast and turkey leg. The numbers reflect that 3-ounce serving size. Inevitably, most of us will consume more than this on Thanksgiving, so use the below figures as a benchmark.

Roasted Turkey Breast (Skin-On)
Calories: 160; Fat: 6g; Sat Fat: 2g; Unsat Fat: 2.5g; Protein: 24g; Sodium: 55mg

Roasted Turkey Breast (Skinless)
Calories: 130; Fat: 2g; Sat Fat: 0.5g; Unsat Fat: 1g; Protein: 26g; Sodium: 85mg

Roasted Turkey Leg (Skin-On)
Calories: 180; Fat: 8g; Sat Fat: 2.5g; Unsat Fat: 5g; Protein: 24g; Sodium: 65mg

Roasted Turkey Leg (Skinless)
Calories: 140; Fat: 3g; Sat Fat: 1g; Unsat Fat: 1.5g; Protein: 25g; Sodium: 70mg

Source: USDA

Skin-On vs Skinless Turkey

Crispy, skin-on turkey is delicious. It also contains nearly twice as much fat as skinless turkey. (It doesn’t matter if you choose white or dark meat, either.) However, it’s important to note that the vast majority of the fat in turkey skin is unsaturated fat. You’ll cut the saturated fat in half by removing the turkey skin, but you’ll also lose most of the healthy fats.

If you’re looking to cut down on saturated fat (which is recommended), then your best bet is to remove the turkey skin. To boost the flavor of your skinless turkey, top it with Spiced-Apple Cranberry Sauce or savory-sweet Balsamic-Cranberry Onion Jam.

White Meat vs Dark Meat

White turkey meat, which includes the breasts, is slightly lower in calories than dark meat, which includes the legs, thighs, and wings. Dark meat is also higher in fat than white meat—but again, the majority of this is unsaturated fat.

However, these small differences in calories and fat aren’t enough to warrant choosing one over the other. So, if you like the flavor of dark meat better, then by all means choose turkey leg over turkey breast.

Health Benefits of Turkey

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Turkey is considered a lean protein—regardless of the cut, it supplies over 20g per serving for a relatively small amount of fat. Turkey meat also packs potassium, selenium, and a spectrum of B vitamins, most notably niacin (Vitamin B3). Niacin contributes to a healthy metabolism and helps your body process sugars and fatty acids into energy.   

The Bottom Line: Turkey is perfectly healthy—and the biggest nutrition differences are going to come from choosing skin-on or skinless meat. For white and dark meat, the differences in calories and fat are relatively small. While turkey is low in sodium naturally, always read the label—some store-bought birds may be injected with sodium solutions.

So load up your plate with turkey by all means, but be mindful of portion size. Make sure you’re also loading up on healthy Thanksgiving side dishes full of our favorite fall veggies like Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash.