What are the side effects of eating chicken?

Feb 28, 2017

Chicken has long been lauded as a healthy protein and a better option than red meat

Much as we'd like to believe that chicken is a really healthy food, we can't treat it as the healthiest option on the shelves. Is it better than processed meats? Yes. Is it better than some fatty red meats? Yes. Is it the best option for your daily dinner and lunch? Maybe, maybe not.

That's not to say chicken doesn't have a lot of goodness in it. With nutrients like vitamin C, folate, B vitamins, as well as selenium, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, it is a good lean-protein option for those who need their fix of meat. But it may not be healthier than certain fish or a great option if it is eaten at the expense of your daily dose of fresh vegetables and fruits.

The American Heart Association suggests limiting the total intake of lean meat, including skinless chicken and fish, to a combined amount of 6 ounces or less each day. It is important to get your chicken consumption right as it can cause certain health risks like food poisoning and diarrhoea, or even increased cancer risk from cooking chicken a certain way.

Food poisoning

Food poisoning from salmonella, campylobacter spp., and other bacteria and germs in chicken remains a very real possibility. The United States has the highest per capita consumption of chicken in the world. And 1 in 6 Americans has at least one bout of food poisoning or contracts food-borne illnesses every year.

Studies have been conducted in Europe, the UK, and on American shores to check samples of chicken sold by various brands at retail outlets. The results have been worrying, with some reports finding harmful bacteria in as much as 97 percent of all sampled chicken.

E. coli contamination

The notorious Escherichia coli, more commonly referred to as E. coli, is a bacteria that's infamous for causing bouts of diarrhoea due to consumption of contaminated or improperly prepared food. Apart from tummy bugs, it could also cause a urinary tract infection and pneumonia or respiratory illness.

Birds often end up contaminated with faecal matter in the congested quarters in which broiler chicken are bred. While processing takes care of rinsing, there may still be traces on the birds. 

Research has found that it isn't just regular E.coli but antibiotic-resistant strains that are increasingly common across different kinds of chicken - regular chicken, kosher, organic, and even chicken that are meant to be raised without antibiotics!

Cholesterol content

Yes, chicken eaten without the skin on may have less cholesterol than a similar portion of lamb or veal. But it isn't lower on the charts than all other meat.

Beef sirloin and chicken are nearly the same as far as cholesterol levels are concerned. While beef sirloin packs in about 89 mg of cholesterol in a 3.5-oz portion, a similar serving of chicken without skin has about 85 mg.

So how can you keep cholesterol levels to the bare minimum?

Switch to vegetable sources of protein like beans and tofu, which have no cholesterol at all.

Have some tuna preserved in water, or salmon or halibut. All of these have lower cholesterol than chicken, with tuna containing as little as 30 mg of cholesterol. Plus, you get the added benefit of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids from fish.

The other thing that can work against chicken is the way you eat it. I'm sure you love your fried chicken. And if you're having deep fried food, especially when it's cooked in an animal fat or reused oil, you end up consuming trans fats and high levels of saturated fats. But you're better off with a gently roasted piece of lean beef.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria are a problem that the medical community is still grappling with, and mass-produced broiler chicken isn't helping the cause. The widespread use of antibiotics given to chickens to help keep off infections is adding to this problem.

There is also some concern around the possible impact on human gut flora of consumption of food with possible traces of antibiotics. However, further research in this area is warranted. However, there is news on antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella not responding to conventional treatment of food poisoning caused by contaminated chicken.

Cancer risk

Consuming a diet that's very high on animal protein and low on fruit and vegetables could up your risk of cancer. Research indicates a reduced risk of cancer, as much as 40 percent lower, in vegetarians when compared to meat eaters.

So no matter how lean the chicken is or how well you prepare it, if you skip your vegetables to make room for more chicken, you could be setting yourself up for a fall.

Because poultry has to be cooked at high temperatures, it can form heterocyclic amines (HCA), carcinogenic compounds that increase your risk of cancer. Grilling or frying chicken ups the levels of these carcinogens, making it worse than most other meats when it comes to HCAs. So frying your chicken is the worst you could be doing to yourself. You could increase the risk of breast cancer, among other conditions.

A particular research found that frying food at a very high temperature can double your risk of colon cancer and increase the risk of rectal cancer by as much as 60 percent. This was attributed to the HCAs in the meat and not the red meat itself, as would normally have been assumed. So chicken, previously considered less harmful, could be just as problematic if cooked incorrectly.

Arsenic exposure

Arsenic is increasingly being made a part of chicken feed, mainly to ward off diarrhoea, improve pigmentation, and help ensure good growth. However, with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, neurological problems, and even cancer due to arsenic exposure in humans, it may be good to know what you're eating.

Research has found that as much as 55 percent of uncooked chicken products sampled from supermarkets contained arsenic. All of the tested fast-food chicken contained some arsenic. But organic brands mostly contained lesser amounts than regular brands.

Researchers caution that while arsenic was present, this was within the limits prescribed. That said, you may still want to limit intake if you're bothered by this. While this was not a large enough test to cause you to worry too much, it may pay to do some checks on whether or not your brand contains any. And the only way to find out is to just ask.

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