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3 Ways Your Favorite Protein Helps Your Health, According to a Dietitian!

By: Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD

Did you know the average American eats 97 pounds of chicken every year? Chicken remains the most popular protein for good reason. It provides key nutrients, tender texture, and is versatile enough for recipes ranging from quick and simple to cultural staples.

But great taste and versatility are not the only reasons to love chicken. There’s a growing body of evidence pointing to the many potential health benefits of chicken consumption…

1. Heart Disease: Multiple studies have found that including lean chicken as part of your eating pattern can lead to a reduction in LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol, as well as lowering your risk of heart disease. Findings vary between the studies currently available, but the data shows that eating chicken has a beneficial or neutral effect – meaning that, eating chicken does not increase your risk of heart disease or stroke.

2. Diabetes: Getting enough protein in your meals can help you feel full and satisfied, plus help manage blood sugar. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends filling ¼ of your plate with lean protein like chicken.

3. Cancer: The available research suggests that as you eat more poultry, like chicken, your risk of certain cancers goes down. Some of the cancers it may be moderately protective against include colon, prostate, esophageal, breast, blood (i.e., leukemia), gastric, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. This potential protective effect will require more observational research to establish how different cuts of chicken and cooking methods or preparation impacts cancer risk factors, morbidity and mortality.

As with many nutrition questions, we need more research before we can make definitive claims about chickens role in health. But in the coming months, a new scoping review and narrative review (funded by the National Chicken Council) will hopefully be accepted for publication and add to the body of scientific evidence on the relationship between eating chicken and impacts to our health!1

This scoping review paper gathered 540 studies on everything from how poultry affects body composition in adults, to how eating chicken can impact risk factors for cancer and diabetes. It was a lot of information to comb through, but here’s the bottom line:

According to the researchers who authored the narrative review, “…chicken and poultry meat can be a component of an overall healthy eating pattern, as it is a high-quality source of protein and provides multiple essential micronutrients.” This is encouraging news, but as a dietitian, I don’t just consider the nutritional benefits of eating chicken. I also think about flavor, cost and how I can use chicken in recipes with other nourishing ingredients. Chicken can help stretch your grocery dollars with many cuts ranking among the most affordable in the meat counter. Pairing chicken with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy foods can increase intake of key nutrients we might not get enough of otherwise.

You also can’t discount the convenience that chicken can offer. When time is short, reach for prepared or quick-cooking options like rotisserie chickens, canned chicken, frozen options or ground chicken.

Here are some dietitian-approved recipes that use different types of prepared and quick-cooking chicken:

  • Use the cooked chicken breast from a rotisserie chicken for sandwiches, salads, soups, stews and casseroles. These Chicken Sandwiches with Lemon-Basil Zucchini and Boursin can help you use up late-summer produce!
  • Separate the dark meat and add it to a flatbread or homemade pizza. Check out this Rosemary Chicken, Potato, and Grilled Onion Pizza.
  • Reserve the skin and remaining carcass to make your own chicken stock for soup season (which is right around the corner)!
  • Use canned chicken to make some homemade chicken salad for wraps, sandwiches or to serve with a leafy greens-based salad. Need a recipe? Look no further than this.
  • Stock up on a bag of frozen grilled chicken tenders for a quick weeknight protein and add it to your favorite recipes.
  • Ground chicken can be quickly browned and seasoned to use in stuffed peppers or rice bowls with your favorite sauces or salsas.

No matter which cut of chicken is your favorite, know that all cuts can fit into a nutritious eating pattern. All cuts are considered excellent sources of high-quality protein, ranging from 23 grams of protein (chicken thighs, meat and skin) to 31 grams of protein (boneless, skinless chicken breast) for a 3 ½ ounce serving.

While dark meat is slightly higher in calories and total fat compared to white meat, it also contains more vitamins. These vitamins include riboflavin, thiamin and vitamins B6 and B12. Dark meat chicken also provides more iron and zinc than white meat chicken. Chicken is already a familiar favorite that is central to many dishes. Harness the versatility, affordability and convenience of cooking with chicken to add more nutrition to your meals!

Are you curious to learn more about chicken’s nutrition profile? Click HERE to check out the ways that chicken powers your body. 

Meet Cara Harbstreet

Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD is a Kansas City-based dietitian and the owner of Street Smart Nutrition. Her passion is fearlessly nourishing meals, which she shares on her blog and social media platforms, as well as her clients in private practice. Cara specializes in using a non-diet, Health At Every Size (HAES) aligned approach for sports nutrition, wellness and meal planning. She is a 3-time published author, a nationally-recognized nutrition communicator and active volunteer in the dietetics field.

When it comes to enjoying chicken, Cara says, “We love a spicy stir fry! Chicken thighs are my favorite cut because they’re packed with so much flavor. I like to cut skinless, deboned chicken thighs into thin strips and marinade them before tossing them into a hot wok or skillet. It’s a staple for meal prep because the veggies, rice and chicken reheat so well, and it’s always a reliable, filling and flavorful meal!”

Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD
1 Campbell W, et al. Nutritional composition, dietary intakes and human health effects of chicken meat. Purdue University, Department of Nutrition Science; Contract #41000690. August 3, 2021.
^This is a National Chicken Council internal report. Publication is currently under preparation. National Chicken Council provided funding support for this study. National Chicken Council personnel were not involved in discussions of design, conduct, analysis, or reporting of the scoping or narrative review.