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Health Benefits of Meat, Poultry, and Fish

Benefits of Poultry

Chicken and turkey are often considered healthy, low-fat alternatives to beef, but that's not always true. A piece of dark meat, such as a chicken thigh, with the skin on can carry a hefty fat load. You have to make the right poultry choices to really save on fat. Your best bet? Skinless white-meat chicken or turkey. It's lowest in fat and calories. Removing the skin before eating poultry saves fat and calories. But you quickly lose your low-fat advantage if you deep-fry it, smother it in fatty sauces or gravies, or cover it with cheese.

If you're trying to cut back on fat, skinless white-meat poultry offers a great low-fat protein option.

You should be aware, however, that chicken and turkey contain about the same amount of cholesterol per serving as beef. Poultry is a generous source of some B vitamins that aren't as plentiful in beef, but it is only a fair source of iron.

Ground turkey is also available, but often it's higher in fat than you might think because it may also contain ground turkey skin. For a truly low-fat ground turkey, look for "ground turkey breast."

Selection and Storage

When choosing a whole chicken or turkey, look for one that is plump and firm with skin that looks moist and supple. The skin should have a creamy white or yellowish color (color varies depending on what the bird was fed), and it should have no odor.

Poultry is a highly perishable food that presents a standing invitation to bacteria if it's not stored properly. If you buy a fresh, whole chicken or turkey, be sure to store it right away in the coldest part of your refrigerator and use it within two to three days. If you don't plan to use it within that time, wash it, dry it, cut it into parts, wrap it, and freeze it. It will keep for up to nine months. If you freeze it whole, it will keep for one year.

Never let poultry thaw at room temperature. Thaw it in the refrigerator, and set it on a plate to catch drippings. It will take anywhere from one to two days to thaw a small 8 to 12-pound turkey, four to five days for a 20-pounder.

Preparation and Storage Tips

When you handle raw poultry, wash your hands thoroughly afterward with soap and warm water before you touch any other food or utensil. Also be sure to thoroughly wash the cutting board and utensils used during preparation. Skip this important food-safety step and you're risking cross contamination -- transferring bacteria like salmonella from raw poultry to other foods served at the meal. Cooking kills salmonella bacteria, but if the bug is transferred to a raw salad, for example, food poisoning can result.

If you marinate chicken or turkey, do it in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter at room temperature. And don't use the marinade as a sauce for the cooked bird unless you boil the marinade before serving.

Though fried chicken is an American favorite, especially the fast-food variety, it's also loaded with fat. Opt for lower-fat methods of preparation. Roasting is a good fat-saving cooking technique for whole chickens and turkeys. Skinless chicken or turkey breasts are perfect for marinating in low-fat sauces or, when cut up and mixed with vegetables, for stir-frying. Chicken or turkey breasts also work well on the grill. If you want to add a sauce, wait until the poultry is almost done. Spread it on any sooner and it could scorch and burn before the breast is cooked all the way through.

No matter how you prepare chicken or turkey, be sure it's cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit for whole birds and dark meat and to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for boneless roasts and breast meat -- the meat should be white, not pink, and the juices should run clear.

Standard advice has long been to remove the skin of chicken or turkey before you cook it to save fat and calories. But it turns out that fat and calories are about the same whether the skin is removed before or after cooking. Since skinless poultry tends to dry out during cooking, keep the skin on while cooking to hold in moisture and flavor. Just remember to remove the skin and any fat left behind before eating.

If you are looking for more variety in your diet, fish also offers another source of protein and possesses disease-fighting potential if it is prepared properly. In the next section we will review the benefits of including fish as part of your healthful daily diet.