Chicken is a staple of nearly every athlete's diet. It's high in protein, affordable and simple to prepare. Those are some of the reasons why chicken recently surpassed beef in terms of American consumption, something that hasn't happened in over 100 years. But not all chicken is created equal. The preparation, cooking method and serving style can all have a big impact on how healthy your chicken really is. To help you see if your fowl is fair, we compiled three of the healthiest—and unhealthiest—ways to eat chicken.
Grilled chicken is great. It's simple, it's easy, it's nutritious and it's versatile. With grilling, you aren't drowning the chicken in oil or fat like you do in some other preparation methods. Whether you go skinless or not is up to you.
For a long time, chicken skin was thought to have no nutritional value. It was believed to be nothing more than an empty source of fat and calories. But recent research has shown that most of the fat in chicken skin is good fat—meaning it's unsaturated, so it has benefits such as lowering your risk of heart disease. Still, not all of the fat in chicken skin is good fat, and it does add calories, so if you're trying to go for a super-lean meal, skinless chicken is better. Grill some vegetables alongside your chicken for a very healthy meal.
If grilled chicken is too dry and flavorless for you, poaching your chicken could be a good alternative. Poaching involves submerging the food in a liquid and cooking it at relatively low heat. Like grilling, poaching chicken is good because it doesn't require added oil or fat.
Chicken stock is often used in poaching, but it can be high in sodium. The best option is to use water and add vegetables and seasonings—such as celery, carrots, thyme, peppercorns and parsley. The chicken will soak up these flavors, and you'll be left with a tasty, tender and healthy piece of meat.
If you want an awesome, quick and easy way to make a flavorful chicken meal, stir-frying is the way to go. Stir-frying involves frying multiple thinly sliced ingredients in a small amount of oil. Yes, unlike poaching or grilling, stir-frying requires oil. But it's a very small amount (usually just a tablespoon or less), and healthier oils such as canola oil or extra-light olive oil can be used.
Stir-fry calls for super-lean, skinless, boneless chicken breasts, and a healthy stir-fry dish is packed with vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, snap peas, carrots, mushrooms and bok choy. Pair it with some brown rice or quinoa, and stir-fried chicken is a great meal option.
RELATED: How to Make a Chicken Stir-Fry
The Wrong Rotisserie Chicken
You see golden-brown chickens slowly rotating on metal poles at countless restaurants and supermarkets. Those are rotisserie chickens, and they're insanely convenient and usually quite cheap. Costco sells 60 million rotisserie chickens a year, at only $4.99 apiece. But it's not the healthiest kind of chicken to eat. Places such as Costco and Boston Market heavily brine and season their rotisserie chickens. That means it's tender and juicy but bursting with sodium.
In a mere three-ounce serving (about the size of a deck of cards), a Costco rotisserie chicken contains 460 mg of sodium (2,300 mg is the recommended daily limit) and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Half a Boston Market rotisserie chicken, which you can down in one sitting if you're hungry, contains 1,380 mg of sodium, 10 grams of saturated fat and a whopping 340 mg of cholesterol. (The American Heart Association recommends limiting cholesterol intake to less than 300mg a day.) Rotisserie chicken also contains dark meat in the thighs, legs and drumsticks, which packs substantially more saturated fat than white meat.
No surprise: fried chicken is not the best way to get your fowl fix. Fried chicken is made by taking a piece of chicken, brining it, rolling it in flour and a mix of seasonings, and frying it (usually in lard). Here's how KFC does it. The nutritional difference between fried chicken and grilled chicken is staggering.
One breast of Original Recipe KFC fried chicken contains 320 calories, 14 grams of fat and 1,130 mg of sodium. KFC Extra Crispy chicken is fried twice, and one thigh contains 490 calories and 29 grams of fat! Dark meat pieces (like the thigh) are even higher in fat. KFC's Grilled Chicken is miles better, with a thigh containing 220 calories and 7 grams of fat, despite having skin and being heavily marinated and seasoned. Many chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, chicken patties and chicken nuggets are fried in a similar manner, bankrupting their nutritional value. If it's deep fried and breaded, it's more of a treat than a smart source of chicken.
Chicken Piled With the Wrong Toppings
No matter how healthily your chicken is prepared, what you put on it can change its nutrition profile very quickly. Take Panera's Chipotle Chicken Panini, for example. The chicken is skinless and probably grilled or poached, but the rest of the sandwich overshadows the nutritional value of the chicken. Slathered in chipotle sauce, topped with cheese and bacon and served on French bread, the sandwich ends up packing 840 calories, 38 grams of fat and 2,140 mg of sodium. You just took your nice piece of chicken and turned it into a monstrosity with as much fat as three Snickers bars.
Yet turning a healthy piece of chicken bad can be a lot easier than that. Say you've got some grilled chicken, and you're looking for a way to add flavor. Splash a single serving of ranch dressing on it and you'll add 15 grams of fat to your once-healthy meal. However, we know that plain chicken breast can get old fast. A lemon juice and rosemary marinade or a low sodium sauce will spice up your chicken without negating its nutritional value.
RELATED: 5 Non-Boring Ways To Eat Chicken