You can find chicken on practically every restaurant menu in America, which makes sense as chicken is the most widely available and the most popular meat in the United States. Full of lean protein and key vitamins and minerals, chicken has rightfully earned its place as a dietary staple that satisfies hunger and contributes to a healthy eating pattern. Unfortunately, this seemingly wholesome protein source can quickly become a nutritional nightmare depending on the way a restaurant prepares your chicken dish.
"A piece of chicken breast is an excellent source of lean protein. However, when you coat the chicken breast in refined bread crumbs, salty seasonings, or top with high-fat creams, sauces, or cheeses, you take your healthy chunk of chicken into unhealthy territory," Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, tells Eat This, Not That!
Ehsani notes that the preparation method and accompaniments the chicken is served with are what can take certain restaurant chicken dishes from healthy to unhealthy.
To guide you in making healthier choices, she recommends starting by limiting high-fat toppings. "So if you see a dressing, sauce, cheese, plus sour cream, for example, with it, try to just choose one high-fat topping," advises Ehsani. She adds that while seeing the word "grilled" on the menu is typically a good sign, you should still be aware that "even grilled chicken options can be high in fat depending on what they are paired with."
Below, we've delved into the specifics, unveiling the top 10 unhealthiest chicken dishes at popular chain restaurants. Read on, and for more, don't miss The #1 Unhealthiest Fried Chicken Dish at 10 Major Restaurant Chains.
Crispy Chicken Fingers with Coleslaw, Fries and Honey Mustard Dressing at TGI Friday's
Who doesn't love chicken tenders?! The kid-friendly staple is battered and deep-fried, making them an unhealthy pick.
"TGI Friday's Crispy Chicken Fingers is a popular dish, but once you take a closer look at the nutrition breakdown behind them, you may choose a different option," says Ehsani. "One order packs over half your daily calories and sodium, as well as packing nearly a day's worth of saturated fat in one order. Unfortunately, when you coat chicken fingers in breading and deep fry them, plus serve them up with fries they don't make for the most nutritious order."
FRIDAYS Signature Whiskey-Glazed Chicken Sandwich at TGI Friday's
This chicken sandwich is loaded with sugar and fat. Grilled chicken is slathered in a whiskey glaze and then served with a fatty combo of bacon, cheddar, whiskey-glaze mayo, and deep-fried Cajun onions.
"This dish it is sky-high in sodium, well-exceeding your daily limit for sodium. It also packs 64 grams of added sugar, likely from the whiskey glaze that's on the chicken," says Ehsani. "The Dietary Guidelines recommends no more than 50 grams of added sugar per day."
Thai Coconut-Lime Chicken at The Cheesecake Factory
Although this dish is not fried, it has an insane amount of fat.
"The Thai Coconut-Lime Chicken at Cheesecake Factory is a colorful dish made with chicken, veggies, and a coconut sauce, but it packs a day's worth of calories on one plate," says Ehsani. "It packs nearly 2,000 calories and has three times the allocated saturated fat per day. Although this dish sounds nutritious it's one I'd recommend skipping due to its high calorie amount and high amount of total fat and saturated fat."
Chicken Bellagio at The Cheesecake Factory
This chicken and pasta dish has a massive serving size, and a ton of sodium to boot.
"This plate of chicken breast over basil pasta and arugula salad sounds like a well-balanced option, but the amount of calories and sodium in this plate will shock you," says Ehsani. "It packs 2,020 total calories, 116 grams of fat, and a whopping 4,230 milligrams of sodium just in one dish. It well exceeds your total calories in one dish and sodium limits for the day."
Cajun Pasta with Grilled Chicken at Chili's
This flavorful pasta and chicken dish is made with grilled chicken, but that doesn't make it healthy.
"Pasta lovers will be sad to learn that cajun pasta with grilled chicken at Chili's isn't the healthiest option," says Ehnsai. "It packs over half your daily calories, nearly double the amount of saturated fat you should shoot for each day, and well exceeds your daily limit for sodium too."
Chang's Spicy Chicken at PF Chang's
Full of spicy flavor, this fried chicken dish is also stuffed with sugar.
"The menu items at P.F. Chang's can be a bit tricky to read, as they list some orders as 2 servings, but when you generally order an entrée, you might be the only one digging into it," says Ehsani. "Chang's Spicy Chicken is high in sodium and packs 62 grams of sugar, which is more than the recommended daily amount. Be careful when choosing menu items there and consider packing up half of what you're serving."
Chicken and Waffles at Golden Corral
This combination of fried chicken with sweet waffles makes it a carb and sugar-filled diet bomb.
"There's unfortunately nothing healthy about chicken and waffles, as it's typically fried chicken over a huge waffle made with refined flour – lacking fiber. At Golden Corral, one order exceeds your limits for added sugar, packing 68 grams of sugar above the 50-gram recommendation and it also hits over your limit for sodium."
Famous Fajitas with Grilled Chicken at Hard Rock Café
These Mexican-inspired fajitas go downhill thanks to high-fat toppings.
"Fajitas seems like a healthy order as it's typically grilled meat with peppers, but this order at Hard Rock is served with multiple high-fat toppings including two types of cheese, guacamole, and sour cream, which all make for a high-calorie meal," says Ehsani.
Twisted Mac, Chicken and Cheese at Hard Rock Cafe
Unfortunately, the addition of creamy mac and cheese puts this meal over a day's worth of calories.
"Adding chicken to your mac and cheese is a great way to bump up protein and satiety at a meal, but this mac and cheese at Hard Rock is tossed with a four-cheese sauce, which is high in saturated fat and sodium, plus adds parmesan breadcrumbs on top too, which adds even more refined carbs and cheese to this meal," says Ehsani. "Better to skip this dish as it packs a day's worth of calories!"
Chicken Parmesan at Ruby Tuesday
This pasta and chicken dish has a scary amount of sodium, not to mention calories, fat, and carbs.
"Chicken Parm is a popular dish, which consists of breaded then fried chicken, which is then baked with lots of cheese and tomato sauce on top and served with pasta," says Ehsani. "At Ruby Tuesday, the chicken parm packs over two and a half times the amount of sodium you can have per day, which will leave you searching for a glass of water all day after eating it. It also hits 1,740 calories which is over double the amount of calories that one meal should have."
- Source: Per capita availability of chicken higher than that of beef since 2010. (n.d.). https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58312
- Source: Chicken from Farm to Table | Food Safety and Inspection Service. (n.d.). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/poultry/chicken-farm-table