Sifting through menu options at a new restaurant can be tricky if you’ve vowed to eat healthier. Words like “fried” and “smothered” appear on every other item, and it seems like bacon is suddenly sprinkled atop everything. Just when you’re about to give up, order the alfredo, and repent for it tomorrow, you spot it: grilled chicken.
At this point, surrendering to grilled chicken may feel like a diet cliche, but it’s the gold standard of healthy eating for a reason. Unlike fried chicken, it’s free of thick breading and low in oil. “Grilled chicken sandwich” might look dull on the menu, but grilling adds great flavor—no frying or “smothering” in cheese necessary.
“Chicken is an affordable option when it comes to adding animal protein to the diet,” says Stephanie Wilson, RDN, CD, certified diabetes educator, and owner of Blushing Wellness Co. “It’s also an excellent, versatile addition to salads, sandwiches, and sides, but can also take the lead as the main feature.”
Chefs can prepare chicken in a variety of ways: rotisserie, grilled, stewed, boiled, roasted, and fried. They can use white or dark meat, and they can use the skin or go skinless. All those tweaks make a big difference when it comes to the nutrition on your plate.
While grilled chicken breast is usually better for you than fried chicken, it does come with an asterisk: “Grilling meat at high temperatures causes chemicals called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) to form,” says Priya Khorana, EdD, doctor of nutrition education at Columbia University. “These carcinogens can cause changes in DNA that can lead to cancer.” In other words, don’t char your chicken.
Whether your grilled chicken comes with skin or not will also affect the calorie counts. Here’s an example: One chicken thigh *with* the skin is 318 calories, but a thigh *without* the skin is 269 calories. The thigh with skin also contains 20 grams of fat, versus 17 grams in the skinless thigh.
But although the skin adds fat and calories, Wilson says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Fat takes longer to digest, which increases satiety,” says Wilson. “This may help us prolong the time [until] our next meal or snack is needed.”
The fat in the chicken skin may have other perks as well: “In an organic, pastured chicken, the skin is high in fat, but fat is a necessary component of our diet for proper absorption of micronutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K,” says Yaffi Lvova, RDN, owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition.
When grilled chicken is on the menu, the chef is usually using skinless chicken breast—the white meat. While it’s common knowledge that white meat is leaner than dark meat, that doesn’t mean white meat is “better” for you. First, let’s look at the numbers:
Yes, choosing chicken breast over thigh will save you almost 5 grams of fat, but dark meat has its perks. “If someone is anemic, I counsel them to concentrate on dark meat, which is higher in iron,” says Lvova. (Here are other top food sources of iron.)
Lvova also mentions that how you cook the chicken, and what else you include on your plate, might be more important than whether you choose white or dark meat.
One chicken breast equals one portion, right?
Ah, if only it were that easy. Selective breeding of chickens over time has increased the size of chicken breasts, particularly the amount of meat on the breast. This means the chicken breast you buy at the store may far exceed the actual recommended portion size: just three ounces.
“Portion size is directly correlated with a person’s total calorie needs,” says Wilson, “but on average, a three- to four-ounce portion is plenty.”
Since you’re definitely not bringing your kitchen scale to the restaurant, let’s make this a little easier: “Aim to keep your portion approximately the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand,” suggests Wilson.
Grilled chicken on its own is low in fat and free of sugar and sodium. However, once you start smothering, dipping, or spreading sauces on your chicken breast, those numbers can add up fast.
A common grilled chicken topper is BBQ sauce. While this American favorite is typically fat free, it has about 25 calories and five grams of sugar in every two tablespoons. Consider how many tablespoons it takes to cover a full chicken breast and you could end up with 15 or 20 grams of sugar (and an extra 100 calories) on your “healthy” grilled chicken. (Here are other surprising sources of sugar to look out for.)
“If you’re at a restaurant and you order a chicken dish that comes in a sauce, it is likely something sweet,” warns Lvova. BBQ sauce, teriyaki sauce, and sweet and sour sauce are all likely offenders. “I personally prefer my sugar to come in the form of ice cream than in a chicken marinade where I might not expect it.”
Try this instead: A green chimichurri sauce—an Argentinean sauce made from parsley, jalapeno, garlic, oil, and vinegar—contains 20 calories per tablespoon, two grams of fat, and no sugar. This would save your grilled chicken from becoming a sugar bomb, and give you some healthy fats from the olive oil.
For major flavor with few added calories and sugar, try a salsa or pico de gallo. With a standard pico, you’ll add 10 calories, one gram of sugar, and no fat for every two tablespoons of pico de gallo. Switch it up with a mango or pineapple salsa for fun, unique flavor. (Find out how to make mango salsa at home.)
Wanna take a stab at grilling chicken at home? Here’s how to avoid sabotaging your healthy protein. “To minimize calories and fat, choose lean, white meat without the skin,” says Wilson. “Use no-salt seasonings to also limit water weight gain and reduce impact on blood pressure.” Wilson suggests spices like basil, garlic, black pepper, mustard, cumin, and paprika as great flavors for chicken.
Another way to flavor grilled chicken is with a marinade. Be cautious about going too hard on sugar or salt, however. Use olive oil, lemon juice, spices, and black pepper, suggests Dr. Khorana, instead of relying on store-bought sauces. Check out this French-inspired marinade that’s free of salt and added sugar.
And finally, don’t just throw a plain chicken breast on the grill and then choke it down in misery. “Create something that looks and tastes good so you feel physically and emotionally satisfied,” says Lvova. “Food is more than just a macro- and micronutrient checklist!”
Get the calorie intel on more of your favorite foods: