Which Is Healthier: Turkey or Beef Burgers?

Beef burgers get a bad rap for being too high in fat, but turkey burgers can cook up dry and bland. Here's what to know about choosing the best burger.

Updated on March 22, 2023

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Photo by: rez-art/Getty Images

rez-art/Getty Images

When you’re shopping for burger ingredients, do you automatically assume turkey is healthier than beef? If so, that’s not always the case. It’s really about reading labels. Here’s a closer look at both beef and turkey burgers so you can make the best decision for your needs.

Ground Turkey vs. Ground Beef

Ground turkey has a reputation for being a very lean meat, but that’s only the case if you choose ground turkey breast. Unless otherwise specified, dark turkey meat and skin get mixed in with light meat, making it fattier than you may think.

A 4-ounce cooked turkey burger (made from a combination of dark and light meat) has 193 calories, 11 grams of fat, 3 grams of saturated fat and 22 grams of protein. It’s an excellent source of niacin and selenium and a good source of vitamin B6, phosphorus and zinc. Choosing ground turkey made from only breast will have 150 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 0 grams saturated fat. You can also find turkey labelled as 93 percent lean – so it’s easier to tell how lean it really is. But be careful: If it’s too lean it can end up being too dry and not so tasty. Adding an egg, sautéed onions, mustard or another binder can help add flavor and moisture to leaner ground turkey.

Undercooked ground turkey has been associated with salmonella, so make sure your turkey burger is safe to eat by cooking it to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Check that the proper temperature is reached by using a thermometer.

When it comes to ground beef, you can certainly find lean cuts of ground beef on market shelves. Look for ground sirloin or ground beef that is at least 90 percent lean. With a 4-ounce cooked 90 percent lean beef burger, you'll take in around 225 calories, 12 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat and 27 grams of protein. It’s an excellent source of niacin, vitamin B12, zinc and selenium and a good source of vitamin B6, iron and phosphorus. Fattier ground beefs are all over store shelves, so be sure to read labels carefully.

If you can only find fattier ground beef, then you can remove some of the fat by rinsing it. Transfer the raw ground beef to a strainer. In a small saucepan, heat the water until it begins to simmer but not boil. Pour the water over the ground beef to help drain off the fat. Let the ground beef drain five minutes after rinsing.

Undercooked ground beef has been associated with the bacteria E. Coli, so make sure your beef burger is safe to eat by cooking it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Always check if the minimum internal cooking temperature has been reached by using a thermometer in the thickest part of the burger.

What About the Burger Bun?

This is a good time to choose a whole-grain bun to help meet the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines to make half your daily grains whole. Choose a whole wheat bun. Or if you’re trying to cut calories go for half a bun, English muffin or a lettuce wrap. You can also opt to serve your burger over a green salad or make a bowl with it.

What Are the Healthiest Burger Toppings?

Pile the vegetable toppings high; go for lettuce, tomatoes and onions or add some extra flavor by grilling onions and mushrooms. If you’re a cheeseburger lover, stick with one slice of cheese or you’ll send the calories and sodium through the roof. Also be mindful with condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce. They can add extra fat and added sugar; keep portion sizes to one tablespoon.

Bottom Line: A cookout just wouldn't be the same without a good old beef burger. The calories between the two burgers aren’t significantly different. Buying turkey can be tricky and if you aren’t careful, it can actually have a much higher fat and calories than you think (or if you end up using all breast turkey, your burger can be super dry!). Whichever type of burger you choose, keep cooked patties at 4-ounces with modestly portioned toppings to keep your meal on the healthier side.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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