Let’s Talk Turkey: White Meat vs. Dark Meat

Let's Talk Turkey: White Meat vs. Dark Meat

The cooking is done. You’re gathered around the table. You give thanks for good food, family, and friends. The bird is carved and the question is asked: What would you like? White meat or dark meat? “In the past, white meat was considered leaner and healthier, whereas dark meat was thought of as richer and more flavorful. But that isn’t necessarily the case,” says Kaley Todd, MS, RDN. “Yes, opting for white meat will save you calories and fat. But dark meat delivers more of certain vitamins and minerals.” Here’s the breakdown on breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings, with all of the benefits.  

If you just count calories, it’s true that white meat is lower. 4 ounces of turkey breast meat is 167 calories, while thigh meat is 187 calories. So there is a difference, but 20 calories probably isn’t going to break your dinner plate.

If you want the skinny on fat, it’s also true that white meat is leaner. Breast meat has 2 grams total fat, while thigh meat has 7 grams total fat. If you specifically look at saturated fat, however, breast meat has 1 gram and thigh meat has 2 grams. That’s only a difference of one gram.

Unfortunately, that delectably crispy skin is pretty much just fat. For a serving of breast or thigh, it isn’t a huge difference, adding another 4 grams total fat and 1 gram saturated fat. “But keep in mind that wings and drumsticks come with a higher percentage of skin to meat,” says Todd. “Strip the skin off a drumstick, and that could save you nearly 50 calories and 8 grams of fat.”

What most people don’t realize is that dark meat is higher in iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12, which are definitely worth gobbling up. Thigh meat contains more than double the iron and zinc, and more than four times as much B-12. Those micronutrients offer big benefits for women and for athletes: Shalane Flanagan loves chicken thighs, and says they were a game changer for her race nutrition strategy.

Turkey Breast*   Turkey Thigh*  
Calories 167 187
Protein 34 grams 31 grams
Total fat 2 grams 7 grams
Saturated fat 1 gram 2 grams
Iron 0.8 1.62
Zinc 1.95 3.98
B-12 0.44 1.87

*4 ounces of turkey breast or thigh, meat only (no skin).

“But also … it’s Thanksgiving,” says Todd. “You should enjoy your turkey dinner and not feel guilty about indulgences. Personally, I like a little bit of breast, a little bit of thigh—I take the skin off of both and dip it in my homemade cranberry sauce, made with citrus zest. And I save a big spot on my plate for delicious roast veggies.” Then the rest of the year, you can think about what makes the most sense for your diet and lifestyle. If you’re carefully counting calories, white meat could help you shave off a few numbers and meet a weight loss goal. But if you’re ready to enjoy the benefits of many more nutrients, it could be time to come over to the dark side.

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