Dietitians weigh in on the nutritional value of various different cuts.
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Grilled Chicken Breasts with Lemon-Thyme Sauce
Credit: Kate Sears

When it comes to meat, you can't go wrong with chicken. Not only is it versatile and delicious, but it's easy on the wallet too. Chicken is also typically healthier than other types of meat, such as pork and beef. Still, with so many cuts of chicken to choose from, it's common to wonder which ones are considered leaner. To find out, we asked dietitians for insight on the nutritional value of various chicken cuts and how cooking and sides may also play a role.

Healthiest Cuts of Chicken

Before we explore the differences between cuts of chicken, it's important to note that all types of chicken (in terms of cut and preparation) have a place in a healthy diet. After all, the definition of "healthy" exists on a spectrum, as everyone has different nutritional needs, explains registered dietitian nutritionist Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. However, different chicken cuts do vary in nutritional content, which may be helpful to consider depending on your preferences and goals.

In general, leaner cuts are recommended for supporting cardiometabolic health. (This is defined as a person's well-being in terms of heart disease and metabolic disorders, like diabetes.) Leaner cuts include options like boneless, skinless chicken breast and thighs, as well as ground chicken, according to Megan Byrd, R.D., registered dietitian and founder of The Oregon Dietitian. According to Feller, choosing leaner cuts is especially helpful if you're trying to lower your blood lipid levels (i.e., blood cholesterol and triglycerides), as they contain less than fat and dietary cholesterol than others.

How You Prepare Chicken Matters, Too

As with many other foods, the "healthiness" of chicken isn't limited to the ingredient itself; it also matters how you prepare it. In fact, according to Byrd, your chosen method of preparation will have the most significant effect on its nutritional value. For example, breading and frying chicken will add more sodium and saturated fat to the overall meal regardless of the cut of chicken you start with. In contrast, chicken (of any cut) that is roasted, grilled, or air-fried will naturally have less sodium and saturated fat. That's because such methods typically require less salt and oil.

The ingredients served with the chicken will contribute to the overall nutritional picture, too. For instance, if you want a leaner dish, a fattier cut that's air-fried and served with brown rice and steamed broccoli will fit the bill more than a leaner cut with cream sauce. But even then, the comparison isn't black and white, as all cream sauces aren't equal. As Feller points out, a homemade cream sauce will likely contain fewer additives because you can modify the ingredients to meet your needs. Plus, "a store-bought processed option will likely have more added sugars, salts, and synthetic fats in comparison to the homemade version," she adds. In this scenario, Feller recommends preparing such sauces (and other sides) at home whenever possible instead of using processed products.

All that being said, which it comes to chicken meals, the nutritional differences are more significant between preparation/serving methods than it is between different cuts, says Byrd. So, whether you're grilling skin-on chicken thighs or frying ground chicken burgers, the healthiest option is to pair it with homemade sauces and sides made with ingredients that suit your specific needs.

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