Does Eating Chicken Cause Inflammation?

Updated on July 4, 2020
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With a Life Science background, Simon understands the science of nutrition and he wants to spread information that can affect your health.

Chicken Breast
Chicken Breast | Source

Chicken is High in Arachidonic Acid, But That Doesn't Mean it Increases Inflammation

Many of us enjoy chicken and consider it a better choice than red meat. After all, we eat chicken for its high-quality protein, minerals and vitamins. However, chicken also contains some unhealthy nutrients including fat and cholesterol. It hardly has any beneficial carbohydrates or fibre. The scary thing is it has a lot of arachidonic acid (AA) too, a fatty acid that is involved in inflammation. So does eating chicken with its high AA content lead to inflammation? I searched the medical literature to find out!

What I found was that although chicken is one of the highest dietary sources of AA it may not necessarily increase inflammation. A few studies show that consuming AA from food does not cause an increase in inflammatory molecules. Furthermore, two studies suggest that a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, poultry and fish is associated with lower inflammation than a Western diet high in red and processed meat, high-fat dairy and processed foods.

While the good news is that chicken doesn't appear to increase inflammation, it can cause a rise in bad cholesterol. This can potentially up your chances of getting heart disease. The takeaway message is enjoy chicken occasionally as part of a healthy diet.

Nutrition of Chicken

You may be wondering what nutrients chicken provide? Chicken is a good source of high-quality protein. It contains all the essential amino acids, the ones your body doesn't make and need to get from food. Chicken also contains fat, including saturated fats, the kind that may not be so good for you. It also has cholesterol, which may be bad if you are among the "responders," whose blood cholesterol rises from consuming it. Chicken contains virtually no carbs and zero fibre. It has some iron and vitamin B12. See table for nutrition information. Finally, It also contains a little bit of antioxidants.

If you want to reduce fat and calories, eat chicken without the skin. The breast is leaner than the chicken leg and wings. So if you're watching your weight, stick with chicken breast. If you prefer a more tastier piece of chicken, go for the thigh, drumstick or wings. The fat in these pieces gives it a better flavour.

Nutrition Content of 3.5 oz or about 100 g of Chicken (Uncooked)

Nutrients
Skinless, boneless breast
Drumstick, skinless
Thigh, skinless
Wing, skinless
Calories
114
119
119
126
Protein (g)
21.2
20.6
19.7
22
Total fat (g)
2.6
3.4
3.9
3.5
Carbs (g)
0
0
0
0
Vitamin B12 (µg)
~0.3
~0.6
~0.4
~0.3
Arachidonic Acid (mg)
~64
 
~106
 

High Amounts of Arachidonic Acid

Some people avoid chicken because they know it has high amounts of AA. What exactly is AA? It is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. It can be found in your liver, brain and glandular organs and is apart of your cell membrane.

AA is also involved in the inflammation process. Enzymes in your cells can convert it to leukotrienes and prostaglandins. These molecules can in turn cause inflammation. See diagram below.

AA is only found in animal-derived foods because most plants don't make much of it. Chicken and eggs contain the highest source of AA in the diet.

So the question that comes up is: does eating chicken cause inflammation since it has such a high amount of AA?

AA in Inflammation

Adapted from Martel-Pelletier J, Lajeunesse D, Reboul P, Pelletier JP. Therapeutic role of dual inhibitors of 5-LOX and COX, selective and non-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Ann Rheum Dis. 2003 Jun;62(6):501-9.
Adapted from Martel-Pelletier J, Lajeunesse D, Reboul P, Pelletier JP. Therapeutic role of dual inhibitors of 5-LOX and COX, selective and non-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Ann Rheum Dis. 2003 Jun;62(6):501-9. | Source

What Is Inflammation?

Before we answer that question, let's look at inflammation more closely.

You can think of inflammation as part of your body's defence mechanism, or its response to protect your body from harm. During the inflammation process, your immune system recognizes and eliminates harmful and foreign material and initiates the healing process. This process can be either be acute or chronic.

We are particularly concerned about chronic inflammation or what is called chronic low-grade systemic inflammation. In this type of inflammation, you have high levels of inflammatory molecules, including C-reactive protein, and increased immune cell infiltration in tissues. Scientists believe that this type of inflammation doesn't cause major tissue structural changes or damage where the immune cells infiltrated and so it is often called "low-grade." The concern is that if you suffer from low-grade inflammation you are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Increased Dietary AA Does Not Necessary Increase Inflammation

Many people think that ingesting more AA will increase inflammation. However, according to some studies, this is not the case. A small number of studies in healthy adults show that a higher intake of AA does not raise the concentration of inflammatory molecules like C-reactive protein. Furthermore, some studies even suggest that AA may be linked to reduced inflammation. Some AA may be processed into anti-inflammatory substances.

No Evidence that Chicken Increases Inflammation

So we have learned that eating more AA doesn't exactly translate into more inflammation. However, I still needed more convincing. So I did my own research. I searched the medical literature, using PubMed, to find out if there were any studies that linked eating chicken to inflammation.

The result: I couldn't find any studies that directly show that consuming chicken increases inflammation in the body. However, I did come across two studies, one in Iranian women and the other in older adults. These studies show that when chicken is part of a healthy diet it was associated with reduced inflammation compared to a typical Western diet containing red meat and high-fat dairy. The healthy diet consisted of high fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, poultry and fish and low in red meat and processed foods.

Enjoy Chicken Occasionally

Chicken is a great source of protein and vitamin B12, which is hard to obtain from trendy plant-based diets. However, it also has a lot of fat, particularly the bad kind, saturated fat. Saturated fat and cholesterol in chicken can result in high blood cholesterol (increased low-density lipoprotein [LDL] and/or non-High Density Lipoprotein [non-HDL]) in some people. As you may know, high LDL and non-HDL (all the other "bad" or harmful cholesterol including LDL, and very low-density lipoprotein [VLDL]) is a risk factor for heart disease.

Let's take a closer look at LDL and HDL cholesterol. Cholesterol and lipids or fats need to be packaged in particles called lipoproteins, so they can be ferried in the blood. Lipids do not dissolve in the watery blood so they need to be contained in particles with protein. Lipoproteins are made of lipids and proteins. LDL is low-density lipoprotein because they contain very little protein and more lipids. The density refers to the protein content (more dense) relative to lipids (less dense). LDL has lower protein and more lipids than HDL. However, LDL is considered the "bad" cholesterol because it transports cholesterol to the arteries, where they can accumulate leading to plaque development. HDL is the "good" cholesterol because it shuttles cholesterol from the arteries to the liver, where it can be eliminated.

So although chicken may not increase inflammation, it can, however, increase bad cholesterol. So enjoy chicken once in a while as part of a healthy diet.

Learn More From These Sources

Anderson AL, Harris TB, Tylavsky FA, et al. Dietary patterns, insulin sensitivity and inflammation in older adults. Eur J Clin Nutr. 66(1):18-24. (2012). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21915138/

Bergeron N, Chiu S, Williams PT, M King S, Krauss RM. Effects of red meat, white meat, and nonmeat protein sources on atherogenic lipoprotein measures in the context of low compared with high saturated fat intake: a randomized controlled trial [published correction appears in Am J Clin Nutr. 110(1):24-33. (2019) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31161217/

Esmaillzadeh A, Kimiagar M, Mehrabi Y, Azadbakht L, Hu FB, Willett WC. Dietary patterns and markers of systemic inflammation among Iranian women. J Nutr. 137(4):992-998. (2007). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17374666/

Harvard Health. What is Inflammation? (2017) https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-disease-overview/ask-the-doctor-what-is-inflammation

Innes JK, Calder PC. Omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 132:41-48. (2018) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29610056/

Kawashima, H. Intake of arachidonic acid-containing lipids in adult humans: dietary surveys and clinical trials. Lipids Health Dis 18, 101 (2019). https://lipidworld.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12944-019-1039-y

León-Pedroza JI, González-Tapia LA, del Olmo-Gil E, Castellanos-Rodríguez D, Escobedo G, González-Chávez A. Inflamación sistémica de grado bajo y su relación con el desarrollo de enfermedades metabólicas: de la evidencia molecular a la aplicación clínica [Low-grade systemic inflammation and the development of metabolic diseases: from the molecular evidence to the clinical practice]. Cir Cir. 83(6):543-551. (2015) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26159364/

National Chicken Council. The Nutritional Value of Chicken. https://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/chicken-the-preferred-protein-for-your-health-and-budget/the-nutritional-value-of-chicken/

NutritionFacts.org. Chicken, Eggs, & Inflammation. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/chicken-eggs-and-inflammation/

Pahwa R, Goyal A, Bansal P, et al. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2020 Mar 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. (2020) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/#_NBK493173_pubdet_

PubChem. Arachidonic Acid. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Arachidonic-acid

Taber, L. et al. Assessment of the arachidonic acid content in foods commonly consumed in the American diet. Lipids. 33, pages1151–1157(1998). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11745-998-0317-4

USDA. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov

VeryWellHealth. The Function of Lipoproteins in the Body. (2020). https://www.verywellhealth.com/lipoproteins-facts-and-info-697495

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Simon Lam

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