For people who want to eat right and get fit, the chicken breast seems to be an integral part of any healthy recipe or weight-loss meal plan.
While chicken isn’t necessarily superior to other sources of protein, such as beef, salmon, or tofu, there are plenty of good reasons why it’s such a staple in many nutrition and fitness plans.
Chicken Nutrition Facts
Every food has biological value, which is how well your body uses the protein from a food. Chicken has a high biological value, making it a high-quality protein, says registered dietitian and exercise physiologist Jim White.
“It is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids [in the proper amounts] needed to build muscle mass,” he adds.
The exact macronutrient content in chicken depends on the cut and how it’s prepared:
- Three-ounces of braised, boneless, skinless chicken breast has about 133 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 27 grams of protein.
- Three ounces of braised, skinless chicken thigh has about 150 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 21 grams of protein.
Chicken breast meat also contains key nutrients like magnesium, potassium, vitamins B and D, and is lower in saturated fat than dark chicken meat.
White Vs. Dark Chicken Meat
But what if you just don’t like chicken breasts? Experts say dark meat is A-OK. “White meat is lower in calories and fat, but dark meat has its own benefits,” says Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.. “It’s higher in myoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein, and has more iron and zinc than light meat.”
However, both Benté and White say eating white and dark meat is best. That way you get the different nutrients each provides. And no matter which you eat, be sure to remove the skin — that’s just extra fat and calories, which none of us need.
Can Chicken Help You Lose Weight?
It’s not a magic weight-loss bullet, but since chicken is low in calories and high in protein it’s a good meal option for people trying to lose weight.
Studies suggest that eating meals with 25 to 30 grams of protein reduces appetite and is associated with greater weight loss, fat mass loss, and preservation of lean mass.
And since protein helps build muscle mass, it also can increase your metabolism so you burn more calories, says White.
How to Buy Chicken
As great as it seems, chicken does have a dark side — and this time we’re not talking about thighs and legs.
First, some chicken is treated with saltwater to “plump” it up. “To rapidly chill chicken after slaughter, whole chickens are submerged in large tanks of ice water,” Benté explains. “To avoid being contaminated by the other chickens in the vats, the liquid can contain things like sodium, chlorine, and other preservatives, which the meat absorbs.”
Not only does that added weight mean you are paying for water, you also could be eating extra sodium, which most of us don’t need. Americans, on average, consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day — well over the 2,300 milligram recommended daily limit.
To avoid this, Benté recommends looking for air-chilled chicken. It may cost a little more, but remember: You’re not paying for water.
If the label doesn’t say “air-chilled,” check the nutrition facts label. If you see more than 100 milligrams of sodium listed for a three- to four-ounce serving, stay away, Benté says.
The other thing you may want to consider is antibiotics, which are used to prevent disease and promote growth in animals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies have linked antibiotic use in animals to bacteria-resistant infections in humans. However, the USDA requires chickens to go through a “withdrawal” period before they are slaughtered to ensure antibiotics don’t end up on your dinner table.
The good news: Top brands, like Tyson and Perdue, have phased out antibiotic use in their flocks. At the store, look for labels that say “No Antibiotics Ever,” “Raised Without Antibiotics,” or “Organic.”
Healthy Chicken Recipes
Now that you know what to buy, it’s time to get cooking. One of the best things about chicken is that since it has a neutral flavor, you can easily prepare it in endless ways:
Healthy preparation methods include grilling, baking, poaching, broiling, sautéing, and braising. And whatever you do, don’t forget to flavor your chicken since your basic bird is a blank canvas for marinades, chutneys, and more.
“When you do your meal prep, separate the chicken into three different compartments with foil to bake. Then use a different sauce, rub, or other flavoring for each section,” White recommends.
Lastly, remember that chicken goes in practically anything — you can make sandwiches, salads, quesadillas, chili, and more. For inspiration, check out these healthy chicken recipes.
Chicken Is Healthy — But It’s Not Everything
But be sure you don’t just eat chicken. “I wouldn’t want someone only eating spinach as their green vegetable,” Benté says.
“Variety is a really important part of a healthy diet,” she explains. “You get different macro and micronutrients from beef, tofu, fish, shellfish, lamb, buffalo, bison.”
Chicken, both white and dark, is a versatile, healthy food, but remember to eat a wide array of foods to get the most nutritional bang for your buck!