Our love for chicken doesn't seem to be waning: About half of all chicken eaters say they're cooking more of the popular poultry since the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to a November 2020 survey conducted by the National Chicken Council. In fact, retail sales of chicken are up by 19.5 percent, or $1.3 billion.
But despite the abundance of chicken breasts and tenders in supermarkets' meat section, there's another cut dietitians want you to add to your grocery cart. We're talking about chicken thighs!
You're not alone if you've been overlooking chicken thighs: That same survey showed two in five Americans say chicken breast is their favorite. "I grew up eating chicken breasts, so when I first started cooking with chicken thighs, it really felt like a new cut of chicken had suddenly appeared," Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, author of the cookbook Meals that Heal, confesses.
What's so great about chicken thighs? Well, the smaller, dark meat cut wins serious points for its nutrition makeup; they also cook up juicier and tastier than their white meat counterpart. Below, dietitians give a rundown of chicken thigh vs. breast nutrition and explain why you shouldn't overlook the dark meat.
Why Chicken Thighs Are So Healthy
1. They Help Keep Portions in Check
Compared to chicken breasts, thighs are smaller — naturally, that is. The typical chicken thigh is also much closer to the recommended 3 to 4-ounce serving of protein than a chicken breast is, so choosing a thigh over a breast is a simple way to keep portion sizes smaller and in check.
2. They Pack More Zinc
Thighs are packed with zinc, providing almost 70 percent more of the mineral than chicken breasts, per the USDA.
"Zinc is one of the most important minerals in the body, necessary for the activity in over 300 enzymes in the body, like those responsible for metabolism, nerve function and immunity, among others," explains Chris Mohr, PhD, RD.
"I always opt for food first when it comes to nutrition so nutrient-dense foods are my go-to."
3. They’re Inherently Tastier
"I love cooking with chicken thighs for their natural juiciness and flavor. Although they're less lean than chicken breasts, thighs can often be cooked in less oil and rely on their own fat to stay moist during the cooking process," says Shannon Garcia, MDS, RD of Kiss in the Kitchen blog.
That extra fat also makes chicken thighs a little easier to cook with because you're less likely to overcook and dry them out.
4. They Can Be More Satisfying Than Chicken Breasts
"I like chicken thighs for the extra fat that comes with the dark meat. And I find them to be more satisfying, even if I eat less meat," Williams says. That extra satisfaction is likely partly a result of the fat.
Gram for gram, fat delivers the most calories at 9 calories per gram (compared to carbs and protein, which deliver 4 calories for every gram). Those extra calories, in theory, should lead to you feel fuller with less. Also, fat is digested slower — another potential cause for it being more satisfying.
What's more, some types of fat have been shown to increase fullness, reduce hunger and positively influence some (not all) hunger hormones, according to an April 2009 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
5. The Fat in the Thighs Are the Healthy Kind
Take a look at the actual numbers and the total fat count in a chicken thigh compared to a breast: A 3.5-ounce cooked chicken thigh has 14.6 grams of fat while the same-sized chicken breast packs only 3.5 grams of fat, per the USDA.
Most of the thigh meat fat is monounsaturated fat or "good fat," according to the American Heart Association. Still, there's more saturated fat (the so-called "bad fat") in chicken thigh meat compared to white breast meat. But most of the saturated fat is in the skin of both thighs and breasts — so simply remove the skin before you cook them.
6. Chicken Thighs Are More Affordable
"Thighs often have a slightly lower cost per pound making them a more economical choice to include in your weeknight meal rotation," says Garcia.
We checked a few chain grocery stores and found that chicken thighs were sometimes as much as half the price per pound compared to chicken breasts. In other stores, they were about 25 percent cheaper.
Inspired to cook with and eat chicken thighs now? Here are a few recipes to try.
- Chicken.ca: "Nutrition Cheat Sheet for Your Favourite Cuts of Chicken"
- National Institutes of Health: "Iron"
- National Chicken Council: "Survey Says: Americans Flock to Chicken, the Nation’s #1 Quarantine Protein"
- AJCN: "Effect of fat saturation on satiety, hormone release, and food intake"
- American Heart Association: "Dietary Fats"