Healthy Burgers: Which Kind Is Best?

Make a better-for-you choice for the grill

woman eating a burger

You might get the impression from advertisements that turkey is significantly better for you than ground beef. But the numbers don’t exactly back up the ads’ implication: A quarter pound of ground turkey may have 20 fewer calories than a quarter pound of 90% lean ground beef, but it has 4 grams more fat and 10 grams less protein than the beef, confusing matters. “Burgers are versatile, easy to make, easy to eat—and yes, they can be healthy, too,” says Laura Cipullo, RD. And if you’re not a meat eater? “Salmon, lentils, or even veggies can serve as heart-healthy options,” she says. Here, Cipullo breaks down the best bets for better-for-you burgers. 
The Burger: Beef
The Bad: Not only is beef high in calories, a quarter-pound patty of 70% lean ground beef contains about 7 grams of cholesterol-raising saturated fat. 
Make It Better: “The key is to choose at least 90% lean grass-fed beef,” Cipullo says. You’ll cut the saturated fat down to 5 grams or less per quarter-pound patty. “Grill the burger and the remaining saturated fat can drip off,” she says. But aside from fat, beef is a great source of iron and contains about 7 grams of protein per ounce. “Burgers range in size providing typically between 28-42 grams of protein per portion,” Cipullo says.
The Burger: Turkey
The Bad: “Don’t be fooled by a turkey burger,” Cipullo says. “If the turkey is dark meat, it may contain the same amount of saturated fat as the beef option.” 
Make It Better: “Look for at least 90% lean white turkey meat,” Cipullo says. Since lean ground turkey can be dry and boring, Cipullo recommends adding diced bell peppers, onions, celery, and seedless tomatoes or tomato paste to your recipe to make it moist. “For the best flavor, add pressed garlic cloves,” she says. “Depending on the theme of the meal, you can also use fresh cilantro, parsley, dill, or any herb to add some zest.” For a kick, try hot sauce, cayenne pepper, or diced fresh jalapeno.
The Burger: Bison
The Bad: Not applicable. 
Make It Better: “I love bison burgers,” Cipullo says. “They are such a delicious deep flavor—I actually prefer bison to beef.” She suggests, like with other ground meat, to look for at least 90% lean. But most ground bison already has a slightly better profile than 90% lean ground beef—about 40 fewer calories, about 3.5 fewer grams of total fat, and less saturated fat for comparable protein. 
The Burger: Venison
The Bad: Not applicable.
Make It Better: “Venison burgers are extra lean and truly from a free-range farm—the wild,” Cipullo says. The natural meat has less calories, fat, and saturated fat than 90% lean beef, with all the protein and iron. Consider stepping up your game every once in a while. 
The Burger: Salmon
The Bad: Some premade salmon patties contain less-desirable varieties of fish, fillers, and artificial ingredients. 
Make It Better: “Salmon burgers are a great way to get your omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA,” Cipullo says. “Ideally, the burger should be made from wild salmon, without added dyes, salt, or fillers.” If you are buying premade salmon patties at the store, read the ingredients list and check specifically for salmon. “Some boxes boast salmon, yet when reading the ingredients you may find your have really purchased pollack burgers instead,” Cipullo says. 
The Burger: Tuna
The Bad: Tuna can contain high levels of mercury. 
Make It Better: “Tuna is another great option to get omega-3 fatty acids,” Cipullo says. “Tuna burgers are delicious and lean. However, one must remember tuna—especially ahi, bigeye, and canned albacore tuna—are higher in mercury and therefore should be limited in your weekly fish rotation.” If you’re concerned about mercury, she suggests eating tuna burgers just once or twice a month to play it safe.
The Burger: Veggie
The Bad: Veggie burgers are often low in protein and high in sodium and processed ingredients.
Make It Better: “Veggie burgers can be a great and healthy option, however, they are typically not only low in calories but low in protein,” Cipullo says. “If you are eating a veggie-based burger, pair it with hummus and a slice of cheese to ensure you get at least 21 grams of protein (equivalent to 3 ounces of chicken).” They are also frequently high in sodium and processed soy. Cipullo recommends reading the label and looking for veggies and beans as the first ingredients and 14 grams of protein and less than 400 mg of sodium per burger. Your best bet is to make simple veggie burgers from scratch with beans or lentils for additional protein.