Is Chicken Always the Healthiest Protein?

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There's lots of talk lately about how you should get ample protein in your diet and not shy away from fat — even saturated fat. The easy solution: Eat meat. In moderation, of course. But red meat is oftentimes super-high in calories and saturated fat, and consuming too much of it has been linked to heart disease and cancer. Pork can be leaner, but processed pork products are not, and they're usually loaded with salt and nitrates.

Then there's chicken. Assuming you're not frying it skin-on in buttermilk, chicken has some fat, but not too much. And it's packed with protein. It has enough calories to provide the basis of a meal, but not too many that you can't enjoy other foods with it. Perfect, right? So is chicken the absolute best animal protein source?

"Actually, there is no one best animal protein source," says Jennifer McDaniel MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Variety is king." Which is not to say chicken is a bad option.

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A 3-ounce serving of cooked chicken breast has about 140 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 25 grams of protein. "Chicken breast is also an excellent source of niacin and a good source of choline, selenium, and pantothenic acids," says McDaniel. Dark cuts, such as thighs, tend to be a little higher in calories and fat, and if you leave the skin on, you'll quadruple the fat content. Again, you need fat in your diet, but there are many better foods to get it from than chicken skin.

So when you ditch the skin, the nutritionals for chicken check out to be remarkably healthy. However, there's a sneaky culprit that often makes this meat less perfect than it appears: sodium. "Whole chickens and various cuts, such as breasts, are often soaked in sodium water, or brine," McDaniel says. "The purpose is to turn a lean protein into a juicier, tenderer meat. However, this 'enhancement,' as it's called, adds a substantial amount of sodium—almost 440 milligrams in a 4-ounce serving." That's a whopping five times the sodium that a chicken not bathed in brine would have.

You should also be wary of the sodium content in chicken when eating out. "Ordering chicken at a restaurant might seem like a healthy option," McDaniel says. "But many times, that chicken is also very high up on the salt chart." Then again, compared to most other options on the menu, an entrée with grilled chicken may still be your healthiest bet.

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But sodium isn't the only thing cutting down chicken's health cred. There's also the issue of what farmers pump into their birds to make them grow faster and bigger. It isn't growth hormones, though, as many people think (that's been illegal since 1960). Chicken farmers instead give birds antibiotic drugs. This widespread practice has helped to spawn antibiotic-resistant superbacteria that can potentially cause deadly diseases in humans.  

The good news is you have a choice: Buy USDA Organic chicken, which is guaranteed to be antibiotic-free. Or look for chicken that's marked "raised without antibiotics." Labels like "free range" don't mean anything in regards to antibiotics. Also "the term 'free range' only means that the chickens have access to the outdoors for 'some' part of the day should they choose to go outside," says McDaniel.

All things considered, chicken isn't perfect, but it has a whole lot going for it in the nutritional department. Plus, it's versatile. So while you should limit your consumption of red meat and avoid eating processed meats as much as possible, chicken, when purchased and prepared properly, is usually a go.

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