White Meat vs Dark Meat Chicken: Which Is Better for You?
One of the great debates in the health world is whether dark meat chicken or white meat chicken is healthier. If you're anything like me, you grew up hearing that white meat was absolutely healthier than dark and that we should always choose chicken breast over chicken thighs or legs. I blindly followed these instructions and consistently chose white meat over dark, even though I don't even enjoy chicken breast nearly as much as darker parts of the bird.
Much of this guidance came from people who said white meat had fewer calories and less fat, so they felt it was an obvious choice to choose this over dark. But in recent years, more people have spoken up about the high nutrient density of dark meat chicken that has largely been ignored.
So, to learn more about which is actually healthier between white and dark meat chicken, we talked to two expert dietitians. Here's what they have to say, and for more healthy eating tips, check out 5 Worst Meats for Your Cholesterol.
Is white meat healthy?
What people say about white meat chicken is true: there are generally fewer calories and less fat than in a piece of dark meat.
- chicken thigh, with skin (3 oz): 197 calories, 12.5 grams fat, 19.8 grams protein
- chicken thigh, without skin (3 oz): 152 calories, 6.93 grams fat, 21 grams protein
- chicken breast, without skin (3 oz): 133 calories, 2.75 grams fat, 27.3 grams protein
- chicken breast, with skin (3 oz): 150 calories, 8.05 grams fat, 18 grams protein
For example, in one skinless chicken thigh, there are about 7 grams of fat and 2 grams of saturated fat, compared to less than 3 grams of fat and less than 1 gram of saturated fat in a skinless chicken breast.
Extra fat and calories aren't always a bad thing. Instead, it really depends on your own health goals and needs. "If you're needing to watch your saturated fat intake," says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and author of The First Time Mom's Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility, white meat can be a better choice."
If you're someone who is paying attention to fat intake, it's also important to pay attention to how your white meat chicken is being prepared. If you're going to eat breaded or fried white meat chicken tenders, your fat content is going to increase anyway. You're better off eating grilled or baked chicken breast if you're wanting to keep the fat content on the lower end.
Is dark meat healthy?
We've established that white meat is generally less caloric and fat-heavy, but dark meat shouldn't be ignored. Dark meat chicken, like the thighs and legs, are known for having higher levels of certain vitamins and nutrients.
Dark meat is higher in iron, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins," says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of The Sports Nutrition Playbook and member of our Expert Medical Board. "Dark meat is a better option for those trying to increase their iron intake," says Manaker, "and dark meat can also have more zinc, a mineral that helps support immune health."
Both have their benefits
At the end of the day, both white and dark meat chicken have their pros and cons. White meat offers a way to eat chicken with less fat intake, while dark meat may offer a more nutrient-dense experience.
Goodson also notes that you can pay attention to whether you're eating the skin or not. "Typically white meat is found in abundance in the breast, where people usually pull the skin off. Dark meat, however, is found on the legs, thighs, and wings, and these areas are typically lower in meat quantity and a place where people are more likely to eat the skin," she says.
While people may not think much about the skin on chicken, "the skin is primarily fat, much of it saturated, which adds significant calories to the lean protein," says Goodson. This isn't to say that you have to always avoid the skin, but it may be something to consider if you're watching your fat intake.
So, when it comes to white meat versus dark meat, our dietitians say to choose what you enjoy and make a decision based on your personal health needs.