Published on 01/02/18

Turkey or Beef: There are pros and cons to both meat choices

By Ali Berg, Hannah Wilson

Turkey burgers, turkey meatballs, turkey tacos and other dishes made with ground turkey are popping up on restaurant menus, food blogs and in cookbooks as seemingly healthy alternatives to their beef counterparts. But is turkey recommended over beef and other red meats? Is turkey always the best choice?

Eating greater amounts of red meat, which includes beef, pork, and lamb, is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and many types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. When it comes to cancer, it is not entirely clear why red meat intake increases risk for some cancers, but some studies point to evidence regarding how the body metabolizes red meat.

Research shows that eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week is associated with higher cancer risk. Therefore, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends consuming no more than 18 ounces per week of red meat.

When it comes to helping prevent cancer, swapping ground turkey (white meat) for ground beef (red meat) is always a good choice. When it comes to heart disease, higher saturated fat intake is associated with increased risk.

So, a major reason to limit red meat intake is that red meat typically has more saturated fat than white meat, like turkey. But it depends on what kind of meat you eat.

For example, 93 percent lean ground turkey and 93 percent lean ground beef do not differ in saturated fat content, which is 2 grams for both. To save on saturated fat by simply swapping to ground turkey, you must be using 70, 80 or 85 percent lean ground beef. In terms of saturated fat, 85 percent lean ground turkey and 85 percent ground beef are not much different. So to save on saturated fat, make sure to choose 93 percent or leaner ground turkey or ground beef.

When eating out, keep in mind that restaurants often choose flavor over health and are likely using 85 percent lean turkey. Ask the waiter or waitress what type of meat is used to know if you’re making a better choice by selecting turkey over beef.

Beyond saturated fat, beef has a little more iron, zinc and selenium than does turkey. Turkey has slightly more potassium and phosphorus, and turkey and beef provide similar amounts of protein.

The take-home message is that both turkey and beef can be part of a healthy diet. To protect yourself from cancer and heart disease, choose white meat more often, and make sure to read labels. Eat 18 ounces or less of red meat per week. If it’s a burger you crave, whether turkey or beef, choose a ground meat that is at least 93 percent lean.

To lead a nutritious life, you must have the knowledge to make good choices. Keep this information in mind the next time you’re at the meat counter in the grocery store or eating at a restaurant. Your choices have a real impact on your health and your family’s health.

Hannah Wilson is a University of Georgia doctoral student and a dietetic intern working with UGA Family and Consumer Sciences Assistant Professor Ali Berg.

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