Even as plant-based eating has grown in popularity, chicken continues to be one of the most popular protein sources in the U.S. In fact, every year, Americans eat 8 billion chickens. For health-conscious eaters, grilled chicken breast is often the preferred way to consume the bird. Fried chicken may be tasty, but it’s also high in trans fats, which have been linked to raising LDL cholesterol and negatively impacting the heart.
Still, you may be wondering just how much healthier grilling chicken is compared to cooking it other ways—especially when it comes to roasting, baking or sauteeing, not just frying. Does it really make that much of a difference how you cook your chicken? Besides cooking method, it’s also helpful to know how chicken stacks up against other protein sources so you can compare them based on their entire nutritional profiles, not just their protein content. If you eat chicken on a regular basis, here’s what registered dietitians want you to know.
How Many Calories Are In Grilled Chicken Breast?
There are 284 calories in a six-ounce grilled chicken breast.
Grilled Chicken Breast Nutritional Facts (for a 6 oz. piece)
Total fat: 6.5 g
Cholesterol: 204 mg
Sodium: 413 mg
Potassium: 806 mg
Carbohydrates: 0 g
Fiber: 0 g
Protein: 57 g
Vitamin A: 1% of daily recommended amount
Calcium: 1% of daily recommended amount
Iron: 5% of daily recommended amount
How Grilled Chicken Breast Compares to Other Protein Sources
When it comes to protein, the recommended daily amount is about 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men. (The exact recommended amount varies based on one’s age, body weight and activity level.) One full chicken breast meets this goal, but because it’s important to include protein at every meal and not just one, it would be best to eat a smaller amount of chicken (such as half of the grilled chicken breast) at one meal while getting the rest of your protein from other sources at other meals.
In general, registered dietitian and Eat Your Vitamins author Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, says that grilled chicken breast is a good source of lean protein. “A skinless chicken breast is the leanest cut of chicken and an optimal choice for supporting or maintaining weight loss and building muscle,” she says. “In comparison to other meat sources, chicken breast offers lean protein, meaning it offers fewer calories due to its low-fat content,” she says.
Registered dietitian Dana Angelo White, RD, MS, ATC, echoes Davis that grilled chicken breast is higher in protein and lower in fat than fatter cuts of beef and pork as well as fatter cuts of chicken. She does say that one benefit of meat as a protein source across the board is that they all contain all the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein that can only be obtained through diet.
While grilled chicken breast seems like an optimal protein source compared to other meat sources, the comparison is more complicated when pitted against plant-based protein sources, such as tofu, beans and lentils. If you’re comparing the foods solely on protein content, chicken comes out ahead. “Both tofu and beans are great sources of plant protein and an ideal choice for protein variation. [But] while these plant-based sources also provide lean protein, chicken is significantly higher in sheer protein content,” Davis says.
However, White says that plant-based protein sources have a more robust nutritional profile than grilled chicken breast. “If we look at other micronutrients there are more diverse differences. Plant-based proteins, like legumes, contain some nutrients not commonly found in meat including fiber and calcium,” she says.
The takeaway here: Eating a variety of protein sources will ensure you’re getting a wider range of nutrients. “It’s important to add variety to your diet, especially protein sources. Different proteins will provide diverse contents of nutrients such as unsaturated fats, dietary fiber and vitamin D,” Davis says.
How Much Healthier is Grilled Chicken Compared to Cooking It in Other Ways?
According to both dietitians, the reason why grilled chicken is healthier than fried chicken is because fried chicken is higher in fat—and not the “good” type of fat that’s found in avocados or fish. The type of fat in fried food is trans fat. “Research shows that frequent fried food consumption is associated with a higher risk of developing type two diabetes and hypertension,” Davis says.
However, grilling your chicken isn’t the only healthy way to enjoy it. Davis says that sauteeing, steaming, roasting and baking are all just as healthy. “These methods do not drastically alter the integrity of the chicken and often require minimal ingredients such as a drizzle of olive oil,” she says. Air frying is also a healthy way to cook chicken as it doesn’t use the trans fat-containing oils that traditional frying does.
“I like high heat for my chicken breast to help sear in the juices: A grill, air fryer or cast iron skillet work beautifully,” White says. “Bone-in, skin-on chicken breast can be roasted in the oven on a sheet pan at 400℉. The skin and bones help keep the meat juicy and flavorful and can be removed after roasting.” She says that other ways to help retain moisture include marinating, which helps add extra flavor to lean chicken breast.
As you can see, there are many different ways to prepare chicken in a healthy way; grilling is a great option, but it’s not the only one. It’s also clear that it’s an ideal way to meet your protein goals. Even still, both dietitians reiterate the importance of eating a variety of foods. By switching up your protein sources, you’ll enjoy a wider range of nutritional benefits. You’ll likely find that your meals will be more exciting too!