Chicken and Obesity

Most people have a general idea of how healthy different meats are in comparison to each other. Cold cuts, sausages, and bacon are among the worst, red meat lies somewhere in the middle, while fish and poultry are considered the healthiest. At the very least, most consumers know that white meat (such as chicken or fish) is a healthier choice than red—otherwise the National Pork Board would not have used the slogan, “Pork. The Other White Meat.” for over twenty years.

meat consumption chart

Source: Earth Policy Institute Credit: Angela Wong / NPR

Over the last 50 years, the consumption of chicken has more than tripled. In fact, a few years ago, chicken overtook beef as the most commonly consumed meat in America. Conversely, beef consumption has been declining since the mid 70’s.[1] This has probably occurred for two reasons: chicken being recognized as a healthier meat choice and chicken’s low cost relative to beef.

Although it seems like chicken has a lot going for it, beneath the feathers and skin there is another story. In fact, chicken may no longer be the lean meat it is commonly assumed to be.

Lean meat and fat people?

A study published in the journal Nutrition looked at the meat consumption of adults and compared it to their respective BMI’s (“Body Mass Index”—a common way of measuring weight). To ensure their findings were significant, the researchers controlled for many factors including: “Age, baseline total energy intake, alcohol intake, vegetable consumption, fruit consumption, consumption of grains, physical activity level, smoking status, level of education, and dieting habits in the past 5 years”.[2] This means that the major difference between the participants in the study was the types and amounts of meat they ate. The study found chicken consumption was the most strongly associated with weight gain in both men and women.[3]

This held true even when a very small amount of chicken was eaten—not a bucket of fried chicken every night. When compared to people who ate no chicken, people who ate 20 grams or more of chicken a day had a significantly greater BMI’s. Twenty grams of chicken a day is not a lot. It only equates to about half a chicken breast a week.[4]

Introducing the Broiler

To understand how chicken is related to weight gain, it is helpful to look at the birds themselves. Just like horses, cows, or dogs, chickens come in different breeds. Some are bred for eggs, others for meat production, and others for factors like temperament, temperature tolerance, or pest control. Are you familiar with the broiler chicken? It is a hybrid variety of chicken that was bred specifically for fast meat production.

The original broiler was a cross between a Cornish rooster and Plymouth Rock hens, but many other breeds have subsequently been added to the mix. Broilers were first introduced in the 1930’s and by the 1960’s had already become the most common chicken raised in America.[5] Broilers are artificially selected for fast growth during the early part of their lives. The modern types grow very quickly—two to three times faster than most other chickens. In fact, most broilers will only live 5 to 7 weeks before they are considered large enough and are slaughtered for meat.[6]

Chicken is Changing.

Selection for rapid growth has not come without consequences. Chicken meat, for example, has undergone enormous changes. Trust me, I am not exaggerating or misusing that word, if anything it is an understatement. Check out this information presented by researchers from the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition located at London Metropolitan University:

According to data collected by the USDA, a 100 gram serving chicken in 1896 contained 16.2 calories from fat and 91.2 calories from protein for a grand total of 107 calories. Just over a hundred years later, in 2004, the same 100 gram serving of chicken contains over 205 calories from fat and about 65 calories from protein for a total of 273 calories.[7] (These values come from two separate organizations, the Food Standards Agency and the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition.) In the table below, you can see the transition in more detail:

fat and protein in chicken

Essentially, this means that during the last 100 years, the fat content in chicken went up more than ten times while the protein content decreased by a third! The overall calorie content in chicken today is almost three times what it was a hundred years ago. So much for high protein, low fat chicken. With all that fat, is it any wonder chicken consumption is related to weight gain?

Overweight Chickens

Concerning the chickens, the authors of the study asked a fascinating question, “Does eating obesity cause obesity?”[8] Are the chickens we eat obese? Most of us have probably never thought about that before, but it would help explain the rapid weight gain broiler chickens experience. According to Dr. Michael Greger, a physician specializing in clinical nutrition, “The cocktail of gene selection for fast weight gain, lack of exercise and high-energy food available 24 hours a day, is a simple and well-understood recipe for obesity in these birds”.[9]

Besides rethinking chicken consumption (or meat consumption entirely) on the basis of our own weight gain, we need to consider the ethics of raising chickens the way we do. In addition to producing fast-growing, fat chickens, the process of gene selection has produced animals that are especially prone to many degenerative diseases. This combined with the manner chickens are industrially raised brings up a host of animal welfare concerns. Some problems include:[10]

  • cardiovascular dysfunction—leading to heart failure or SDS
  • skeletal dysfunction—leading to pain walking and lameness (due to fast growth and having no space to exercise)
  • contact dermatitis—rashes caused by chickens being forced to lie in their own excrement for weeks where high ammonia concentrations build up
  • lack of space to move, natural light, and poor air quality
  • eye abnormalities (such as avian glaucoma)
  • rough handling and transport that often leads to injury or death of some birds

As you can see, the way chickens are raised today is not good for you or the chickens. We recommended that you remove it from your diet. If you are looking for a low-fat, high-protein food to replace chicken with, we recommend legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). There are hundreds of types available, with different flavors and textures. Furthermore, they are truthfully high in protein and low in fat. They also contain a lot of fiber and digest slowly, which keeps you full longer and also benefits diabetics in controlling their blood sugar.



[1] “Chicken More Popular Than Beef In U.S. For First Time In 100 Years.” Huffington Post, January 2, 2014.

[2] Gilsing, Anne M. J., Matty P. Weijenberg, Laura A. E. Hughes, Ton Ambergen, Pieter C. Dagnelie, R. Alexandra Goldbohm, Piet A. van den Brandt, and Leo J. Schouten. “Longitudinal Changes in BMI in Older Adults Are Associated with Meat Consumption Differentially, by Type of Meat Consumed.” The Journal of Nutrition 142, no. 2 (February 2012): 340–49. doi:10.3945/jn.111.146258.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Chicken Big: Poultry and Obesity |” Accessed January 5, 2015.

[5] Smith, Kingsley (2010). “The History of Shaver Breeding Farms”. Hendrix Genetics. Retrieved 6-1-2015.

[6] “Broiler Chickens Fact Sheet // Animals Australia.” Accessed December 30, 2014.

[7] Wang, Yiqun, Catherine Lehane, Kebreab Ghebremeskel, and Michael A Crawford. “Modern Organic and Broiler Chickens Sold for Human Consumption Provide More Energy from Fat than Protein.” Public Health Nutrition 13, no. 03 (March 2010): 400–408. doi:10.1017/S1368980009991157.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Does Eating Obesity Cause Obesity? |” Accessed January 6, 2015.

[10] Bessei, W. “Welfare of Broilers: A Review.” World’s Poultry Science Journal 62, no. 03 (September 2006): 455–66. doi:10.1017/S0043933906001085.


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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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