Whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain muscle, both white and dark meat chicken can be a healthy staple in many diets — and for good reason. “Chicken is a wonderful source of protein,” says Mascha Davis, MPH, RD, a Los Angeles-based dietitian. “Because it comes from animal muscle, it has all of the essential amino acids humans need to stay healthy.” Plus, that protein has high bioavailability — meaning your body easily absorbs it and uses it for various functions — because the quality and amino acid distribution closely mimics ours, she explains.
Moreover, chicken is rich in key minerals and vitamins such as iron, zinc, B vitamins and selenium. So, including white or dark meat chicken in your diet may help boost your health. But whether you opt for white or dark meat might depend on your goals.
Here, nutritionists weigh in on the pros and cons to consider the next the next time you’re deciding whether to eat white meat or dark meat chicken.
WHITE VS DARK: NUTRITION
Three ounces of roasted, boneless, skinless white meat chicken has about 147 calories, 4 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat and 26 grams of protein. Compared to dark meat chicken, white meat is lower in fat and slightly higher in niacin, a B vitamin that helps convert food to energy.
“Given that a chicken breast has a fairly low calorie density for the amount of protein provided, consuming chicken may promote weight loss or weight maintenance,” says Georgia Rounder, RD.
On the other hand, three ounces of roasted, skinless dark-meat chicken meat has about 174 calories, 8 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 23 grams of protein. Because it’s higher in myoglobin than white meat, dark meat chicken has more iron and zinc. And because it’s higher in fat, it has about twice as many healthy omega-3 fatty acids as white meat, Davis says.
“White meat is actually less nutrient-rich than dark meat,” notes Rounder. “Myoglobin is the special protein that determines the color of the chicken meat. The more myoglobin, the darker the meat and the more nutrient-rich the piece of meat is,” she explains.
WHITE VS DARK: COOKING
White meat chicken is a blank slate when it comes to flavoring and cooking. You can marinate it, coat it in spice rub, slather it in a healthy sauce or top it with salsa or compote. You can also prepare it in many healthy ways, such as roasting, baking, grilling or stir-frying. “White meat chicken is a very versatile protein and a great option for people looking to lower the amount of saturated fat in their diet for heart health reasons,” Davis says.
While dark meat is just as versatile when it comes to cooking and seasoning as white meat, the higher fat content gives dark meat a richer, juicier flavor and texture, Rounder points out. It’s also usually cheaper than white meat.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Both versions of chicken are good to incorporate into your diet due to volume of nutrients they provide,” Rounder says. “The decision ultimately depends on your personal health goals.” For example, if you are watching fat, you may want to primarily eat white meat with some dark meat here and there.
However, your budget also matters. “Very often, the most economical and delicious option is to buy a whole chicken with the intent of eating every part,” Davis says. “Depending on the types of fat in your overall diet that day or that week and what tastes good to you, you may want to choose one part of the chicken over the other.”
Regardless, it’s best to avoid the skin, which is high in unhealthy fat and calories (about 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 40 calories per three ounces of meat).