Substituting turkey or chicken for beef or pork doesn’t automatically make your meal healthier.
Recently, I was relaxing with the Sunday paper and came across a story on how to take your favorite comfort foods and make them lighter. For the article, a famous TV chef had adapted some recipes to make them healthier. Her first recipe makeover was for sloppy joes, and to “lighten them up,” she replaced ground beef with ground turkey. That’s it.
How does making sloppy joes with ground turkey make them healthier? I guess that’s what happens when you ask chefs for nutrition advice.
I know tons of people who suffer from this same misconception. They proudly tell me that they never eat red meat. They substitute ground turkey or chicken in anything that calls for ground beef. They also eat turkey bacon, turkey sausage, turkey bologna, and turkey hot dogs instead of the regular kind. Having told me all this, they lower their eyes modestly and wait for me to commend them for their nutritional virtue.
Never mind all the sodium, nitrates, preservatives, and saturated fat in that turkey bacon: at least it’s not pork. You know what? That’s just a bunch of turkey boloney. Cold cuts, bacon, and sausages made from turkey or chicken may contain just as much of that stuff as their traditional counterparts. In fact, regardless of what kind of meat went into them, the low-fat versions of these foods are often even higher in sodium than the regular-fat varieties.
Where did everybody get the idea that turkey and chicken are automatically healthier than beef or pork, anyway? I’m not sure, but I have a theory. Some time ago, the powers that be decided that it would be good for people to reduce the amount of fat they eat, especially animal fat. And someone—perhaps someone in the chicken farming industry?—pointed out that a boneless, skinless chicken breast is very low in fat.
And it is. If you replace a broiled strip steak with the same amount of boneless, skinless chicken breast, you cut the fat by about 75%. So far, so good. But somehow people have latched on to the idea that chicken and turkey are inherently healthier than beef or pork. They’re not.
There are cuts of beef and pork that are just as lean as a boneless, skinless chicken breast. And, by the same token, there are cuts of chicken and turkey that have just as much fat as a well-marbled steak. If you were to replace a serving of London broil with a roasted chicken leg, for example, you’d end up eating three times more fat!
So, back to our sloppy joe recipe. If the goal is to reduce the amount of fat in the recipe, then replacing regular ground beef with lean ground turkey would certainly be an improvement. But replacing regular ground beef with lean ground beef would get you just as far. In fact, it might get you a bit further.
If you compare lean ground turkey with lean ground beef, guess what? Both have the same amount of fat and calories, obviously. But the ground beef has almost twice as much iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 as the ground turkey.
Also, I’d like to point out that meat contains a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat. Saturated fat is thought to be the least healthy, especially for your heart. And monounsaturated fats, which are the type you get in olive oil, are thought to be the most healthful. Although it varies from cut to cut, on the whole I’ve noticed that beef and pork tend to contain a greater percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats than turkey or chicken.
So, what am I saying here? I guess there are three take-home messages:
1. Chicken and turkey are sometimes lower in fat than beef or pork. But not always. The legs, thighs, and wings are higher in fat than the breast meat, and all poultry is high in fat if you leave the skin on. The amount of fat in ground meat and sausages varies. So, if you’re trying to cut back on fat, be sure to check the label and don’t make any assumptions.
2. Lean cuts of pork and beef such as pork tenderloin, pork loin roast, sirloin steak, or flank steak are just as healthful as lean cuts of chicken and turkey. In fact, they often contain more of certain nutrients, including heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
3. Just because it’s made of turkey doesn’t automatically make it healthy. If it’s loaded with fat, salt, and/or preservatives—I don’t care if it’s made with wheatgrass and organic sunbeams—it’s not exactly health food.
About Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva
Monica Reinagel is a board-certified Licensed Nutritionist and a professionally-trained chef. She is the host of the Nutrition Diva podcast which is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network. She has authored three books on health and nutrition, developed recipes and diet plans for websites and other publications. Monica's professional affiliations include the American Dietetic Association, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings, LLC.