Chicken is the touted as a quintessential choice for many healthy diets. It's paleo-approved, keto-friendly and low in fat compared to other meats. But what is it specifically about chicken nutrition experts love so much? There's a lot. Chicken is high in protein and relatively low in calories. It's low in carbs, and it provides important nutrients like B vitamins and selenium.
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Of course, the cut you choose and the finished dish you make will affect the chicken's nutritional facts, but you can incorporate chicken into almost any diet plan that includes meat.
The Protein in Chicken
When deciding on a protein's quality, it's helpful to look at the amino acids it contains. There are 20 major amino acids that your body needs on a regular basis. You can make 11 of them yourself, but the other nine have to come from the foods you eat. The 11 amino acids that your body is able to make itself are called nonessential amino acids, while the nine amino acids that you have to get from your diet are classified as essential amino acids.
Chicken is often described as a high-quality protein source because it contains all nine of the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It's also easily digested by the body because it's low in collagen, a connective protein that makes tougher meats, like steak, harder to digest.
The exact amount of protein in chicken depends on the cut and whether the meat is white or dark. A 3-ounce serving of chicken breast, which is white meat, contains 18.75 grams of protein, while the same amount of chicken thigh, a dark meat, is slightly lower, at 15.75 grams per serving.
Health Benefits of Protein
High-quality protein is often hailed for its ability to help with weight loss and weight maintenance. High-protein diets have been connected to improved metabolism, decreases in appetite and a lower calorie intake overall. According to a report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April 2015, protein can help prompt weight loss while also helping to preserve lean muscle mass.
But it's not just about your weight. Getting enough high-quality protein may also help prevent the development of sarcopenia, or muscle loss due to aging, as you get older, according to another report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also published in April 2015.
The current daily recommendation for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight. That means if you weigh 150 pounds, you need around 55 grams of protein per day. However, the reports in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition note that this recommendation may be too low. Researchers from the studies recommend 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight for optimal weight loss, and 1.0 to 1.5 grams per kilogram to help preserve muscle mass during aging.
Chicken Breast Calories
Chicken is also relatively low in calories. A 3-ounce serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast contains around 90 calories. The same size serving of chicken thighs is a little higher, clocking in at 120 calories. If you're cooking a whole bird, you can estimate the calories in a pound of chicken to be around 850.
A report in Food and Nutrition Research published in June 2015 notes that if you leave the skin on your chicken, it can increase the number of calories by 25 to 30 percent, because of the higher fat content in the skin. Cooking methods also have an effect on calories. Higher-fat methods of cooking, like frying or sautéing, add calories; dry cooking methods, like baking and roasting, don't.
Read more: 12 Tips to Keep Chicken Tender and Tasty
Carbohydrates and Fat in Chicken
Like most meat and poultry, chicken doesn't have any carbohydrates in it, no matter which cut you get. This nutrition fact is what makes chicken a foundation for low-carb, high-protein diets. Keep in mind that prepared chicken, like the rotisserie chicken you can buy at the supermarket, and frozen chicken may have additives like sugar that increase the carbohydrate count.
White meat chicken, like chicken breast, is low in fat, containing only 1.5 grams per 3-ounce serving. Dark meat chicken, mainly found in the thighs, is significantly higher, contributing 6.75 grams of fat for the same size serving. Most of this fat is in the form of saturated fat, which is a source of some pretty substantial controversy in the nutrition world.
The Saturated Fat Controversy
While some say that saturated fat is connected to heart disease, a report published in the BMJ in 2015 says you might not have to worry. According to the researchers, saturated fat is not as closely linked to heart disease as previously thought. A study published in The Lancet in August 2017 backs these findings by reporting that saturated fat intake was not significantly associated with increased heart disease risk and may, in fact, lower the risk of certain types of stroke.
Another report published in the BMJ in June 2018 chimed in, saying that the discrepancy may be due to the fact that many researchers have been analyzing the effects of dietary fats on their own, but the whole package is more important. In other words, in addition to saturated fat, chicken also contains other nutrients, like protein and B vitamins, that work together to contribute to good health instead of causing harm.
Other Nutrition Facts About Chicken
In addition to the macronutrients — protein, fat and carbohydrates — the micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, in chicken are also important. A 3-ounce serving of chicken breast also contains:
Based on these general nutrition facts, chicken, whether you choose white or dark meat, seems to have a place in a healthy diet. Of course, as with all nutrition recommendations, you have to find what works for you.
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Chicken Breasts"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Chicken Thighs"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Traditional Whole Rotisserie Chicken"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day?"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Protein"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Protein and Healthy Aging"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Niacin"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin B6"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Selenium"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Potassium"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Riboflavin"
- The BMJ: "Intake of Saturated and Trans Unsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of All Cause Mortality, Cardiovascular Disease, and Type 2 Diabetes: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies"
- The BMJ: "Dietary Fat and Cardiometabolic Health: Evidence, Controversies, and Consensus for Guidance"
- The Lancet: "Associations of Fats and Carbohydrate Intake With Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality in 18 Countries From Five Continents (Pure): A Prospective Cohort Study"