Do you have Chicken Syndrome?

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As nutrition professionals, we get the chance to read through hundreds of food journals. We see lots of food profile types: There’s the typical Standard American Diet (lots of over-processed foods and fast-food restaurants), there’s the Sneaky Sugar Eater (mostly healthy but sugar sneaks in every day), and then there’s a new phenomenon aptly named by our colleague, Aaron Epstein: Chicken Syndrome.

Chicken Syndrome is the (false) belief that if something has chicken in it – especially if that’s skinless, boneless chicken breast – it must be healthy.

Or at least, healthier.  It’s not red meat, it’s high in protein, it’s got very little fat, and (for the low-carbers and Paleo types among us) it’s not a potato. When someone has Chicken Syndrome, his food journal is covered with chicken dishes: Thai curry with chicken; Caesar salad with chicken; chicken burrito; stir fry with, you guessed it, more chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken.

Chicken has become the omnivore’s favorite supposed guilt-free meat. And hey, we enjoy a meal with chicken as much as the next guy, but we bet there are some facts about chicken you didn’t know that might inspire you to mix it up once in a while:

  • Of all meat, chicken breast is the most difficult to digest. Dark meat is easier on the system and fattier cuts of red meat close to the bones and joints are even better. Food for thought for those of you grappling with some digestive issues.
  • The dark meat, while fattier (which isn’t a bad thing), is more nutritionally robust than its paler counterpart according to research from the NYU School of Medicine. White meat has about half the saturated fat of dark meat, and for this reason alone it has been pushed as the healthier alternative. But white meat is largely a protein delivery system; dark meat contains many more nutrients.  Dark meat gets its color from myoglobin, a compound that muscles use to transport oxygen to fuel activity.  It’s rich in a nutrient called taurine known to aid in anti-inflammation, blood pressure regulation, healthy nerve function, the production of bile acid (which breaks down fat), and other important functions.  In addition to taurine, dark meat is far richer in minerals such as iron, zinc and selenium, as well as vitamins A, K and the B complex — B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate) and B12 (cobalamin).
  • Another fascinating result of the NYU study mentioned above was that women with high cholesterol who ate dark poultry meat greatly reduced their risk for heart disease.
  • The skin on chicken is among its most nutritious parts. Like all fatty foods, chicken skin is a combination of saturated, mono-unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.  For the skin of half a chicken, the breakdown is: 6.7g saturated fat, 10g mono-unsaturated fat, and 5g polyunsaturated fat. It’s largely monounsaturated fat – that’s the largest component of olive oil!  At 261 calories, the skin of half a chicken has 11g of protein and is rich in some vitamins and minerals, especially Selenium which protects cells from free-radical damage.  The skin also contains a complete amino acid profile – the building blocks of our cells and neurotransmitters!  No wonder we feel happy when we are eating the skin.
  • If you eat conventionally-raised chicken (factory-farmed, which is what most restaurant chicken and all supermarket chicken is unless otherwise specified) then you’re eating an animal that has lived its entire life inside in abysmal conditions: from hatched egg to slaughter, many of these poor birds have never seen the light of day. Now, I’m not a proponent of factory-farmed animals of any kind, but at the very least most ruminants (cows, sheep, bison, goat) live the first part of their life on grass, and are only then brought into the factory farm environment to be “finished.” From an animal welfare perspective, beef trumps chicken.
  • From a nutritional perspective, exclusively grass-fed red meat has a much better nutritional profile:

100g of grass-fed beef provides 192 calories, 19g protein, and 13g fat with cholesterol value of 62mg and sodium at 68mg. It’s a mild anti-inflammatory due to its 88mg of Omega-3’s and CLA content and has a more complete vitamin and mineral profile than chicken breast.

100g of skinless chicken breast on the other hand provides 165 calories, 31g Protein, and 4g Fat with a much HIGHER content of cholesterol at 85mg and sodium at 74mg, and LOWER Omega-3’s at 70mg which increases its inflammatory response.

So if you’re looking at grass-fed beef vs. chicken breast from the very limited lens of calories and protein/fat content, yeah sure it looks like a better bet. But if you look at its entire nutritional profile you get a very different story.

  • And while we’re into comparisons, chicken doesn’t hold a candle to fish. Here’s how 100g of wild Alaskan King Salmon shores up: 187 calories, 20g protein, and 12g fat with 61mg of cholesterol 48mg sodium, and Omega-3’s at a whopping 1340mg giving it a very strong anti-inflammatory score as well as the most complete vitamin and mineral profile of the three.

The moral of the story?

Diversify and get out of your chicken rut. Add in some wild fish or grass-fed meats to mix things up.

When you do eat chicken, eat exclusively chicken from pastured birds (that means birds allowed to roam around and peck at grubs, eat grass, roll in the dirt… do chicken things the way chickens do), prioritize dark meat, and don’t throw out that skin!


Do you eat too much chicken? |


  1. Loved this article. I eat a lot of red meat, fish, and lately I’m really into chicken, including eating the skin. I love all of the information you’ve provided here. It’s so educational, and not at all tell us what we should do, rather, just giving us information. Great article.

  2. Leslie


    I LOVE this article!! So eye-opening. I’m definitely a much bigger fan of dark meat and beef these days, but now I have hardcore evidence to back it up! I’m one of the many, though, that thought white meat chicken was king….for so many years. So glad to have made the switch and to know that in doing so, I’m doing my body a favor too. Thanks for such a comprehensive article on the differences between white meat chicken and other meats. Awesome read 🙂

  3. Interesting article. I’ve never been a huge fan of chicken but when I eat it I eat dark meat and skin. It’s the only part that’s felt good to me. When I order grass fed beef I get the fattier cuts.

    I haven’t done this by “knowing” better but by listening to me body and tuning out everyone who tells me it’s wrong.

    It’s fun to read why my body is making sense.

  4. Cute article! In my recovery from vegetarianism I’ve never understood why white meat chicken is so popular. I’ll take the drumstick any day! But overall, grassfed beef is what helped me come back alive.

  5. Debby Germino


    Awesome information. So happy to hear I can eat the skin and not give it to my dogs anymore. (though my dogs will be sad) I’m curious to know how pork measures up to chicken vs. grass fed beef vs. salmon. Maybe that’s a future post?

  6. meri gray


    I love duck, turkey, and goose far more than chicken. Even under intensive breeding, they are older, more robust (with bones that make amazing stock), and better flavor/texture.

  7. Hilary


    Thanks for the informative article, Margaret! I googled “What’s wrong with boneless chicken” because there was something about boneless chicken breasts that didn’t seem right. Well, my intuition was right! I almost never cook chicken but I wanted to try this week and wanted to decide to make bone-in or boneless. Decision clear!

  8. Wendy Conger


    You’re kidding, right? Beef makes me soooo much more bloated than chicken! I don’t believe this for a minute.

  9. Diane Smith


    I have Crohns and IBS, chicken hurts me terribly, especially grilled chicken breast. I’m not a dark meat fan, but wonder if Turkey is more easily digested?

    • If you have Crohns and IBS, then digestion overall is going to be more of a challenge for you and I’d strongly recommend you work with a practitioner to get to the root of those issues and strengthen your digestion. It could be in part hypochlorhydria, or it could be something more – but the only way to know for sure is to work with a practitioner who does work in this area. Feel free to reach out to if you’d like more info on what that process looks like with me.

  10. Ruqayyah Perkins-Williams


    White meat chicken has given me issues for decades!! It drove me to vegetarianism and then I came back due to thyroid issues (too much soy). I thought it was the soy in the feed that made it hard for me to digest, it literally runs through me, but this makes so much more sense. I’m gonna try to stay on with grass fed beef, it’s so pricey. But at least I won’t feel guilty about my love of chicken thighs anymore.

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