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The Case Against Chicken Breast

Look at those breasts...
I really don't like white meat.  And I don't like waste.  So I've never really been a fan of the neat little packages of boneless, skinless chicken breast.  I went through a period where I tried really hard to like it, since we were lead to believe that it's lack of fat (and accordingly taste) is better for us.  But it never stuck, and even before I changed the way I ate I was far more inclined to buy a package of bone in chicken thighs or, better yet a whole chicken, than a package of chicken breast.

So I was relieved when I came across a little blurb in a magazine, still years before I changed my family's diet and probably while I was pregnant with my first child (I think I remember this blurb being in a parenting magazine...), that stated that a chicken thigh has only a tad more fat and a lot more minerals than a chicken breast.  Vindication!

Since then, obviously, I have completely changed the way I look at meat.  Now it's not just chicken thigh, it's whole pastured chicken that I'm fortunate to be able to raise myself (I've graduated from the tractoring system shown above to full free ranging, although I did still use the tractor as their shelter).  On very rare occasions I do buy a package of chicken breast tenders so I can treat my kids to homemade chicken strips, but I feel this is an acceptable compromise only because we eat plenty of whole roasted chicken, bone stock made from the bones, and more recently, the offal far more often than this occasional treat.

You've likely fall victim to the very same rhetoric I did years ago.  Chicken breast is healthy because it's lower in fat, particularly saturated fat... and it's true. But let me take a moment to scream it to the heavens...


Think about- for thousands upon thousands of years our ancestors ate what?  Soy burgers?  No.  Meat (the WHOLE meat), in season vegetables and fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seasonal full fat (raw) dairy (or cultured dairy if eaten out of season), and eggs.  Eggs, meat, and dairy were particularly prized and cherished because of their nutritional density.  None of these were low fat- these weren't colored pastuerized egg whites, skim milk, hydrogenated butter-like-substance, or you guessed it, boneless skinless chicken breast.  These were the only foods available, more or less, for thousands of years.  Yet heart disease is relatively modern, with the first heart attack diagnosed in 1912 and rising sharply beginning in the middle of the century (right around the time several things became commonplace- white sugar, white flour, industrial meat, and homogenized milk... coincidence?  I tend to think not).  Metabolic disorders such as diabetes rose at about the same time and rate.  But recently the lipid hypothesis, the reason we all decided in the 70's that fat is bad, especially saturated fat, has come into question and doctors at Harvard (among others, but you just have to mention Harvard first) have come to the conclusion that saturated fat does NOT cause heart disease.   That, in a one paragraph nutshell, is why the fat content of your meat should be the last thing you worry about.

Whole chicken, with the bones and skin, contains all the nutrients (amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fat, cholesterol, etc) we need from meat in more or less balanced ratios.  Remove the bones and you both pay more for the convenience and you miss out on the stock you (should) make with the bones, which is rich in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, chondroitin (sound familiar?  it's a pricey supplement), glycine, collagen, and many other trace minerals.   Remove the bones AND skin and only eat the white meat and you loose virtually all the glycine (more on that in a second), much of the omega 3 fatty acids, and reduce many other vitamins and trace minerals such as Vitamins A and K and zinc.

Most importantly, though, is the glycine and it's relationship to methionine.  Glycine is an amino acid present almost exclusively in the skin and the bones of a chicken, while methionine, another amino acid, is present almost exclusively in the meat.  Both are necessary amino acids, important for healthy growth and development.  However, in excess and in the absense of glycine (you know, like when you eat a boneless skinless chicken breast...) methionine has been shown in several studies to retard growth in children and fetuses and, in severe cases, to cause birth defects.  This is because glycine is necessary for proper cellular growth, but levels of glycine are depleted when your body needs to detoxify excess levels of methionine.  But your body still needs the glycine (and, if you are pregnant, so does the body of your fetus) for cellular development, so your body synthesizes the glycine... from folate and another amino acid.  This is obviously limited by the amount of folate and this other amino acid you are consuming, and as folate is also needed for other processes this lack of glycine could cause a domino effect of deficiencies. 

All of this is very serious scientific nonsense, but it comes down to this.  Chickens exist in their whole form for a reason, just as grains do.  When you mess them up by taking them apart and portioning them out, you mess with something that was more or less perfect to start with, thereby affecting your own health.

"But chicken breast is just so easy!"  Really?  Maybe I just do it wrong, but any time I've cooked chicken breast in the past has been far more work intensive than the ways I cook whole chicken.
  • Whole Chicken Method #1:  Throw it in the crock pot.  Add some liquid and, if you're really ambitious, some seasonings.  Cook all day on low or 4ish hours on high.
  • Whole Chicken Method #2:  (and my preferred method...)  Put it in a large cast iron/clay/otherwise heavy pot.  Season.  Add liquid.  Cook in oven on a low temp until done (if it's like 4 and I'm running behind, I do it at 325, if it's earlier I lower the temp accordingly... it's more of an art than a science).  Sometimes, if I'm feeling adventurous, I start it on the stove, or add some root veggies, or use wine for the liquid.  But providing I don't over or under cook it, it always turns out delicious.
Couldn't.  Be.  Easier.  On occasion I will do something crazy like cutting up the chicken and frying it or making fricassee.   Rare occasion.  Like twice a year.  But still always the whole chicken.

What do you think- can you give up your chicken breast?

I'm not desparaging the breast completely... obviously it's part of the whole chicken, and is itself higher in certain nutrients like niacin.  Just don't eat it by itself!

This post has been shared on GNOWFGLINS Simple Lives Thursday, Kelly the Kitchen Kop's Real Food Wednesday, and Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.


Brianna Erickson said...

I prefer the breasts, but I'm coming on to dark meat. But my favorite (since theres just 2 of us) is cooking the whole chicken, eating plain roasted chicken for one meal, then using the other half of the chicken that we don't eat (which is usually at least 1 breast) and making cream of chicken soup to freeze, or chicken enchiladas with said soup previously made. And just because I'm a pain in the butt medical professional, I do have to point out that- were these diseases not happening or were they not diagnosed? I do agree though that white sugar and white flour are the end-all of society.

Brandislee said...

Of course that's the argument they always use. But the thing is, the first diagnosed heart attack was in 1912 because yes, that was around the time the first EKG was invented. There were probably occasional heart attacks before that. But medical professionals scoffed at the idea of the EKG because it wasn't needed. It wasn't until 20 years later (ie 20 years with the technology) before rates began to rise significantly. Not to mention the fact that, whether or not heart attacks were common before the 30's and 40's, the rates have gone up exponentially since then. AND rates climbed faster starting in the late 70's... when low fat high carb was all the rage. So even if doctors were missing heart attacks before, you can't argue with the fact that the rate has gone up. And up a LOT.

I do the same thing with chicken- it's just so easy, and even my family of four can usually still squeeze two meals PLUS stock out of a decent sized chicken.

Mallin said...

I have taken to portioning my whole chickens up. Still everything gets eaten but it packs better into my freezer (I buy in bulk, who doesn't?) and makes midweek dinners easier. Whole food right? Just eating the same parts of the same animals all the time can't be right.

Christy said...

I just can't get over the waste - once it was pointed out to me. So many people just eat the breasts. I remember as a child FIGHTING for the legs, then the thighs, then if you were stuck you got part of the breast. No one wanted the breast meat. This was back in the 70's before low fat had really taken hold. We have been conditioned to only like white meat and it has so little flavor. I admit I have had to relearn to eat dark meat. And when we eat our own chickens it is so totally different in flavor but how it should taste! Great post.

Velvettt said...

I hate chicken breasts. I'm a good cook, but even I can't do much with boneless, skinless chicken breasts that wouldn't be a thousand times better with bone in chicken thighs!

I don't know about you, but I'm really tired of trying to educate people on the benefits of pastured chickens, cultured butter, etc. After my last explosion of frustration, my husband told me "Just let them be wrong." That's my philosophy now.

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