The role of chicken in the American diet has changed radically during the past two generations: what was once the centerpiece at Sunday dinner is now a fast food; what was praised as a healthy source of protein is now maligned as a vehicle for fat.

The public health implications of this evolution were part of the conversation at a multidisciplinary conference at Yale College called “The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History From Neolithic Middens to McNuggets.” Researchers, poultry workers and farmers attending the conference in May considered the chicken in relation to industrialization and globalization, workers’ rights and animal rights and even symbolism and folklore. Conference participants in public health focused on the “McNuggets” aspect of the contemporary chicken.

A roast chicken dinner was once considered a special meal, “a big deal,” said Marion Nestle, Ph.D., chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “Now it’s a junk food, a fat food. … It’s fried, so it gets maximum oil and breading.” Nestle believes that highly processed meats may be popular in part because Americans feel ambivalent about eating animals. McNuggets “don’t look very animal-like,” she said.

Deep-fried chicken meat, served as nuggets, “tenders” or strips, adds another inducement for overeating in a culture in which obesity is increasing—and where overeating is good for business. Food companies spend copiously on marketing because “the United States produces 3,800 calories per day for every man, woman and child in the country, and that’s about twice as much as most people need,” said Nestle. “The government is complicit in that marketing effort, because these companies are very, very large and like any other business, they support congressional campaigns.” Federal subsidies and price supports help keep chicken cheap, she said. The actual “farm value” of food in the United Sates averages 19 cents for each dollar consumers pay for it, Nestle said. The other 81 cents are spent on labor, shipping, processing, packaging, advertising and profit.

In restaurants that offer children’s menus, young diners are most likely to choose chicken, according to a study by conference participant Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., professor of psychology and of epidemiology and public health at Yale. Brownell and colleague Marlene B. Schwartz, Ph.D., co-director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, surveyed 10 major fast food restaurants and “family-style” chains. In eight of these restaurants, some form of fried chicken was the top choice for children. And in each case the meals contained more calories and fat and less fiber than the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines suggest a child should consume in a single meal, Brownell said.

Chicken has been considered healthier than beef, because it has less fat. Now, says Brownell, “chicken has gone from being part of the solution to being part of the problem.”