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Could Chicken Be Contributing to the Obesity Epidemic?

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You're watching your weight, so you opt for chicken rather than red meat as your go-to smart diet choice, right? We all thought of chicken as lean, protein-rich food that's good for weight watching, but the truth is chicken might actually be making us fatter! I wrote in The Lean about overweight chickens bred on factory farms that may be passing their weight problems on to us. It turns out chicken at the grocery can have far more fat than protein!

Here's the skinny (well, not really): Virtually all commercially-available chickens now have what many call the "obese gene," which makes birds gain weight quickly to speed up production from birth to slaughter. That, combined with no exercise and a constant supply of high-energy (caloric) food, makes today's chicken the opposite of lean: The amount of fat in modern chicken may be five or even 10 times what it used to be, according to a UK-based study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. So if you serve a whole chicken to your family like grandma did, you may be serving them 10 times as much fat than the days of yesteryear. That's a whole lotta fat, and big trouble for the waistline.

The nonprofit Farm Forward explains that this is another consequence of inhumane factory farming.

"This type of chicken husbandry needs to be reviewed with regard to its implications for animal welfare and human nutrition," wrote lead researcher Dr. Yiqun Wang. "The cocktail of gene selection for fast weight gain, lack of exercise and high-energy food available 24 hours a day, is a simple and well-understood recipe for obesity."

Farm Forward is on to something important, and they are taking the research even further. They teamed up with Kansas State University to compare the fat and protein content of heritage birds to commercial ones found in the grocery store. KSU professor Dr. Liz Boyle started the research in February with heritage chickens from Frank Reese Jr. of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in central Kansas. Heritage birds are the genetic breeds that existed before the days of industrialized meat. Reese's chickens take at least 120 days to mature. Most all chickens available at the grocery store take about 40.

Fast-growing chickens go right alongside chicken welfare problems, explains Farm Forward, so the worse the conditions they are raised in (cramped and barely able to move or support their unnatural weight), the fatter (and more fattening) the chicken meat is. For chickens raised in factory farms (99 percent of the meat at market is from factory farms), their pitiless fate seems to be accompanied by a drastic rise in fat grams. "The fat went from less than 2 grams to 23 grams of animal fat per serving, twice as much fat than ice cream," says physician and author Dr. Michael Greger, who has his own interesting commentary on Dr. Wang's study. "So now chicken has 10 times more fat and ten times more calories, so that could explain why chicken has been tied to human abdominal girth."

Ten times more fat and 10 times more calories can be related to a fat belly, that's for sure. It makes sense that our crisis of obesity might very well be closely tied to the daily consumption of chicken by many millions of Americans.

Farm Forward and KSU plan on conducting more studies when this one is complete. "The consequences of disregarding animal welfare go far beyond the question of cruelty," Dr. Aaron Gross of the University of San Diego and CEO of Farm Forward explained to me. "What we are discovering more and more is that many of the environmental and public health problems with meat are intimately connected with animal welfare." So basically, what's bad for the chickens is bad for us; it's all related.

We've all seen chicken portrayed as the low-fat, heart-healthy alternative to red meat for years, but it no longer adds up. You might want to lean away from eating birds and lean toward more plant-based options of protein like black beans, lentils, tofu, chickpeas and whole grains. No cruelty, far less fat, zero cholesterol. It's a sensible swap for the waistline and good news for the birds!

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