Despite being less flavorful than pretty much any other type of poultry, boneless-skinless chicken breast has come to rule the American grocery roost. That’s thanks largely to ’90s messaging about its lower fat and cholesterol content compared to skin-on, darker-meat cuts. Today, chicken breast makes up 56 percent of supermarket chicken dollar sales, compared to 17 percent for chicken legs, drumsticks, and thighs, according to figures from the National Chicken Council.
For reasons entirely related to flavor, I always go for the darker-meat thighs on a rotisserie chicken and especially the darker portions of a Thanksgiving turkey. (Bone-dry turkey breast is a scourge upon our nation.) But how many calories or grams of fat are people really saving by choosing white-meat chicken? I asked both nutritionists and poultry experts.
First, let’s break down calories and fat. According to the USDA Food Composition Databases, a 147-gram serving (a hair over 5 ounces) of raw, skinless light-meat chicken contains 168 calories and 2.4 grams of fat. That same portion of raw, skinless dark-meat chicken contains 182 calories and 6 grams of fat. Calorically, the difference isn’t huge (just 14 calories), but the fat content has more than doubled.
“Although it contains a slight bit more in terms of fat and calories, dark meat contains more iron, zinc, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins B6 and B12,” Tom Super of the National Chicken Council tells me, before taking a quick swipe at beef and pork: “Both have less fat than most cuts of red meat.”
The American Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics says that while the calorie and fat gap between light and dark might seem small, it can add up depending on your portion size. (The Academy’s figures put dark-meat chicken at three times the fat content of light-meat chicken.) It suggests turkey as an alternative, as the fat content of dark-meat turkey is less than dark-meat chicken--but still more than white-meat chicken. Which type of fat the poultry contains is important too; the fat in both white and dark-meat chicken is mostly unsaturated fat, which is a healthier fat than the saturated kind. Of course, the Academy adds, the most important factor in the caloric and fat content of any poultry is how it’s prepared. Health-wise, grilling, baking, and roasting are preferable to frying or stuffing with cheese, butter, and bacon bits.
On paper, the caloric difference between white- and dark-meat chicken isn’t much, but the fat content could be a concern for people trying to eat a heart-healthy diet. On the other hand, dark-meat chicken contains higher levels of vitamins and nutrients (and flavor), so put a plus in its column for that.
Ultimately, whether you choose light or dark really comes down to what your individual dietary preferences are. And look at it this way: If you’re deep-frying the meat, you’re nutritionally screwed either way, so may as well go for that juicy thigh, friend.