Plump, juicy birds have always been prized by chefs and chicken farmers. Of course, it's the fat from the skin that can give the meat such a succulent flavor.

Fear that fat will melt and drip onto the meat during the cooking process -- increasing the calorie content -- has prompted dietary guidelines that recommend removing the skin before broiling, baking, stewing or fricasseeing.

However, a recent study commissioned by the National Broiler Council, a Washington-based trade association, questions the need to remove the skin before cooking.

The results of the study, published last month in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, show that the calorie and fat content of a roasted breast remain the same whether the skin is taken off before or after cooking.

"The skin helps to retain the moisture in a chicken," said Linda S. Dieleman, a registered dietitian at the University of Minnesota and a coauthor of the study. "It is very hard to grill a skinless chicken breast because it will dry out."

Dieleman says she thinks that some people who remove the skin first may try to retain moisture by basting with high-calorie marinades that contain oil.

"People need to cut the total fat in their diet and they should be wary of ideas that end up netting more fat," she said.

The trick is to remove the skin before eating the chicken. A 3-ounce roasted breast with the skin has 140 calories and 3 grams of fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same chicken breast without the skin has 116 calories and 1.5 grams of fat.

Younger chickens have less fat. As the fowl ages, it tends to deposit more fat, said Edward Naber, professor of poultry science and nutrition at Ohio State University in Columbus. Buying poultry meat from a butcher --

instead of the grocery store -- is one way to learn the age of the chicken.

Chicken is a popular dish, mainly because it is relatively inexpensive and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork or veal.

Americans consume about 20 chickens per person each year, according to Bill Roenigk, vice president of the broiler council.

Americans prefer the white breast meat to the darker flesh of the thighs and legs. "People like the nutritional profile of the white meat and the milder flavor," said Roenigk.

"Darker meat has more calories and fat and a more distinctive flavor," Roenigk added.

A 3-ounce thigh has 152 calories and 6.7 grams of fat.

By removing the skin after cooking, people can maintain the flavor without adding fat. Besides, a cooked chicken with the skin intact is a more desirable-looking dish.

"Just resist the temptation of eating the skin," said Dieleman.