Whether it’s the holiday season or you’re just looking to drop a few pounds, how many times have you heard that you should go for the white meat instead of the dark meat? By and large, when it comes to turkey (and chicken), you’ve likely been conditioned to believe that white (breast) meat is “better” and “healthier” than dark (thigh and leg) meat…but is that actually true?
For this white meat vs. dark meat turkey faceoff, let’s take out the figurative carving knife. Is there any truth to the common notion that white meat is nutritionally superior to dark meat? Or, is it just another nutrition myth that needs to be busted?
What Makes Dark Meat Dark?
To start, let’s peel back the skin, so to speak, and dig into what makes dark meat dark and white meat white. Speaking of skin, in this white meat vs. dark meat turkey faceoff, we’ll specifically be referring to skinless meat.
Why? There’s no nutritional difference between the skin found on white meat vs. dark meat. But if you’re interested, the skin is a dense source of calories (390 calories per 3-ounce serving) and fat (76% of calories), and it does provide some protein (20 grams per 3-ounce serving) and micronutrients (e.g., B12).
So, what gives meat its color? It comes down to a protein called myoglobin. Let’s take a step back for a moment. Both dark and white meat is largely made up of the muscles. Myoglobin is a protein that stores oxygen, which is necessary to fuel activity. The darker the meat, the greater the concentration of myoglobin.
Think about it for a second…when talking turkey (and chicken), you’ll find the dark meat in the legs and thighs. Considering that these flightless birds spend the majority of their time walking, it makes sense that they store more myoglobin in the very muscles that power them around, right?
Facts Are Facts: White Meat vs. Dark Meat
Okay, so with that little poultry science lesson under your belt, let’s let the facts speak for themselves—the nutrition facts, that is. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the nutrition facts of a standard 3-ounce serving of roasted, skinless white meat vs. dark meat.
My guess is that your eyes may be drawn to the top to nutritional characteristics: Calories and fat. And if so, you may have noticed that a serving of white meat contains 15% fewer calories and 65% less fat.
In the case of the former, the difference in calories is not nearly as substantial as you might think; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s negligible. And in terms of the fat content, while the difference is statistically significant, as we’ve talked about previously, low fat is not necessarily better. In fact, the long-standing low-fat ideology seems to have played a significant role in the obesity epidemic.
With that in mind, by no means do I think it’s necessary to choose white meat over dark meat simply based on the slightly higher amounts of calories and fat in the latter. By the way, a 3-ounce serving of dark meat turkey contains less fat than a similar-size serving of lean beef. And for what it’s worth, a 3-ounce serving of dark meat would provide only about 7.5% of the total daily value for fat intake on a so-called “low-fat, heart-healthy” diet.
Beyond that, both white and dark meat turkey are excellent sources of protein, with both providing a similar amount. However, there are some nutritional differences that are worth pointing out. Let’s take a look.
- Dark meat contains over twice as much iron (which is an essential component of myoglobin), and with 1.22 mg per serving, you’ll hit 15% of your daily requirement if you’re a man or postmenopausal woman. [Note that premenopausal women typically need more, about 18 mg per day, to compensate for menstrual losses.] This probably has the greatest implications for women, athletes (especially younger females), and teens.
- Dark meat packs over twice as much zinc, and with 2.98 mg per serving, dark meat provides 37% of a woman’s daily requirements and 27% of a man’s daily needs. Zinc is an essential mineral that’s involved in hundreds of metabolic reactions in the body.
- White meat contains 75% more niacin than dark meat, and with 10 mg per serving, white meat provides 56% of the recommended daily amount.
- White meat contains 75% more B6, and with 0.7 mg per serving, you’ll hit over half (54%) of your daily recommended target.
- White meat contains more than twice as much B12, and with 0.3 µg per serving, white meat provides 12.5% of the recommended daily amount.
The Verdict Is in…
When it comes to the battle of white meat vs. dark meat turkey, white meat isn’t the clear-cut “winner” we’ve been led to believe. This is especially true given the minor differences in total calories and the inconsequential difference in fat content. Having said that, white and dark meat each have unique micronutrient advantages that may be particularly relevant to certain populations.
For instance, if you’re an athlete—particularly a young female athlete—the iron and zinc content of dark meat might make it a particularly valuable component of your nutrition plan. On the other hand, if you don’t eat many animal-based products, then the B vitamin content of white meat may make it a better choice.
Personal preference also plays a significant role. In other words, if you prefer the taste of dark meat, go for it! If white meat floats your boat, don’t let me stop you. Lastly, considering the complementary micronutrient profiles, the “best” strategy might be to eat BOTH.