If your friends are like mine, throwing a party presents a challenging exercise in honoring culinary special needs. Some friends don’t eat gluten, some avoid dairy, two have onion allergies, one deplores zucchini, another gets sick from broccoli, two won’t eat fish. And yet, while many long ago gave up red meat, most still eat plenty of chicken. In fact, some eat so much chicken that I jokingly call them the “chicketarians.”
Apparently, it’s not only my friends who are gorging on chicken. Chicken is on track to become the world’s most popular meat by 2020, accounting for about half the increase in global meat production.1 We have an ever-increasing plethora of fast-food chicken restaurants—KFC, Bojangles, Chick-Fil-A, Boston Market, Chicken Republic, El Pollo Loco, Zaxby’s, and many more. Going to these places is more virtuous than to McDonald’s, right? Isn’t chicken a healthier choice?
Perhaps not, according to a series of studies. One of the largest followed almost 400,000 individuals for five years to track how meat consumption contributed to weight gain. The big shocker was that chicken contributed more to weight gain than did any other type of meat.2 The researchers also found that meat in general packs on the pounds more than other foods, and not necessarily because it contains more calories. In fact, when subjects consumed calories from non-meat sources, they gained LESS weight than when they consumed the same number of calories from meat. The study controlled for exercise, grain consumption, and fruit consumption, and yet, all things being equal, meat (and chicken in particular) led to more weight gain pound for pound.
As Dr. Michael Greger explains in his report on that study, “An intake of 250 grams [just under 9 oz] of meat a day—like a steak—would lead to an annual weight gain 422 grams higher than the weight gain experienced with the same calorie diet with lower meat intake. After five years, the weight gain would be about five pounds more. Same calories; yet five pounds more, eating meat.”
One theory postulates that because meat is low-fiber, it gets metabolized differently than high-fiber alternatives. Another theory runs that meat is such a high-acid food that over-consumption of it leads to cellular dysfunction, which in turn causes weight gain.3 The researchers note that cutting back on meat isn’t as effective in reversing this process as is adding more vegetables and fruits to the diet.
But why is chicken, in particular—which long has been touted as a healthy, low-fat alternative to red meat—the worst of the weight-gain culprits? One theory focuses on the way chickens are raised in factory farms with an emphasis on fattening them up as fast as possible. Commercial chicken plants prune the flock, selectively breeding only the fastest weight gainers, sometimes feeding hormones to make chickens fatter. Some believe that this practice has led to a phenomenon where all commercial chickens now contain an “obesity gene.”4 It doesn’t help that the chickens get no exercise and subsist on fattening grains.
The end result is that the typical supermarket chicken these days has an average of five to ten times more fat content than did chickens a generation or two ago. The average serving of a typical supermarket chicken contains 23 grams of animal fat, whereas a scoop of Breyer’s vanilla ice-cream only contains 7 grams. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where chicken is less of a protein food than a fat food, as commercially raised chickens now (whether organic or not) confer several times more energy from fat than from protein.5
Even worse, health issues arising from eating chicken may include increased cancer risk. A few studies found that those women who ate the most chicken had a 42 percent increased risk of breast cancer compared to those who ate the least chicken, after controlling for other factors.6 Another study of about half a million people found a 72 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer for each 1.76 ounces of poultry eaten per day. Some experts believe that chickens abound with cancer-causing viruses that may infect people, especially given the fact that poultry farmworkers have extraordinarily high rates of liver, pancreatic, and brain cancers. Also, conventionally raised chickens may contain arsenic, a known carcinogen.7 (Incidentally, arsenic is a government approved additive for chicken feed.) Plus, according to Jack Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, 90 percent of factory-farmed chickens are infected with cancer (chicken leukosis) due to the conditions under which they’re raised.
Chicken consumption also correlates to a higher incidence of diabetes, particularly among women. And, kidney stones are 35 percent more common among those who eat the most chicken. Finally, and famously, chicken is a leading cause of food poisoning. As we’ve written before, past studies have found that “two-thirds of all chickens on supermarket shelves …hosted either salmonella, campylobacter, or both.” We’ve also written that in 2012, “the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine found that 48 percent of all chickens in their samples…tested positive for E. coli.”
Sure, chicken is a versatile menu option. You can have it roasted, broiled, barbecued, braised, fried, cacciatore-style, in soup, with dumplings, in high-end dishes like coq a vin or cordon bleu. But as you’ve seen, chicken leaves much to be desired as a source of healthy protein. Organic chickens are certainly safer than non-organics, but they’re still likely to be raised under conditions that breed extraordinary fat content and may encourage bacterial contamination. The bottom line is if you’re going to eat chicken, try to find a source of truly free-range, organic poultry, and keep consumption at a moderate level.
- 1. “The protein problem: Why eating too much chicken might not be helping your diet.” The Guardian. 27 April 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/20/chicken-protein-atkins-paleo-diet-wwf-uk-health-forum-oecd-sustainable-farming
- 2. Greger, Michael, M.D. “Meat and Weight Gain in the Panacea Study.” 4 September 2012. NutritionFacts.org. 27 April 2018. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/meat-and-weight-gain-in-the-panacea-study/
- 3. Berkemeyer, S. “Acid-base balance and weight gain: are there crucial links via protein and organic acids in understanding obesity?” September 2009. Medical Hypotheses. In Pub Med 30 April 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19410381
- 4. Freston, Kathy. “Could Chicken be Contributing to the Obesity Epidemic?” 11 May 2012. Huffington Post, The Blog. 30 April 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-freston/fat-chickens_b_1497856.html
- 5. Yang, Wiqan., et al. “Modern organic and broiler chickens sold for human consumption contain more fat than protein.” March 2010. Public Health Nutrition. 30 April 2018. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/modern-organic-and-broiler-chickens-sold-for-human-consumption-provide-more-energy-from-fat-than-protein/01F274E25955E7263FEC19F3BAA64B2E
- 6. Stanger, Janice Ph.D. “Five Dangers of Eating Poultry.” The Perfect Formula Diet.1 May 2018. https://perfectformuladiet.com/health/five-dangers-eating-poultry/
- 7. “Fact or Myth: Can Eating Chicken Cause Cancer?” Underground Health Reporter. 1 May 2018. http://undergroundhealthreporter.com/chicken-and-cancer-fact-or-myth/