When It Comes to Cholesterol, White Meat May Not be Better than Red Meat


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, Founder

For as far back as many of us can remember, doctors and health experts have recommended eating white meat, such as chicken, instead of red meat if we wanted to control our cholesterol levels.  This advice was reinforced by the poultry industry, well-known and respected nutritionists, research institutions and even the government!

One result of all these recommendations was U.S. consumption of poultry increased dramatically over the past several decades to where it surpassed beef consumption. Even pork producers tried jumping on this bandwagon when they launched their “Pork, the Other White Meat” marketing campaign some years back (and not to burst their bubble, the USDA classifies pork as “red” meat even though it may look more like chicken than beef).  

It now turns out that this recommendation may have been wrong and that any meat, regardless of where it comes from, may be bad for your cholesterol.

New research from the University of California at San Francisco’s Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, and published in the respected Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that consuming white meat has similar negative effects on blood cholesterol levels as eating red meat.  The study also found while all meats can raise cholesterol, eating plant proteins can help lower cholesterol levels. Researchers also found that these results remained constant whether study participants were eating high levels of saturated fat, such as is found in lard and cream, fatty beef, poultry skin and cheese, or diets low in saturated fats.  That said, they also recommended limiting saturated fats in any event to better protect your health.

The researchers did caution that the study did not include fish nor grass-fed beef, and that additional investigation is required.  They also acknowledged that these results contradict current guidelines but noted that there has never been a comprehensive study that compared red, white meat and plant proteins and their links to cholesterol.

Even if studies continue to show that red meat and white meat are equally bad for managing cholesterol, this does not mean you should run out to the corner butcher and stock up on beef.  Independent of its link to cholesterol, excessive red meat consumption may still contribute to heart disease and other health issues.  These include an increased risk of colorectal cancer, diabetes and kidney failure, among others. The researchers made it clear that limiting consumption of red meat as well as white meat are important.  And, if you decide to eat beef – which is nutrient-dense and packed with vitamins B12, B3, B6 along with selenium, zinc and iron – be sure to pick cuts that are low in fat and limit portion sizes (a good rule of thumb is a portion of beef should be about the same size as a deck of cards).

Healthier Eating to Manage Cholesterol

The good news is that there are other ways – equally as appetizing as eating meat - to make sure you’re giving your body the protein it needs to function at its best.  One of these is, of course, to substitute red and white meats with fish. In addition to protein, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease including heart failure and stroke.  Great options are salmon, mackerel, lake trout, albacore tuna and sardines. Since our bodies don’t produce Omega-3 fatty acids, we need to get them from food. This important fatty oil has also been linked with possibly preventing Alzheimer’s disease.  

It’s also clear from the study that plant-based proteins are the most effective in combating cholesterol.  So, if you’re concerned about cholesterol and want to do all you can to manage it, then you may want to consider increasing the amount of plants and vegetables in your daily diet.  And don’t worry about not getting enough protein and other nutrients without eating meat. The truth is that you can get all the nutrients your body needs with plant-based foods.

In addition to making sure you are getting an important macronutrient (besides protein, the others are carbohydrates and fats), replacing some or even all of your meat protein with plant protein brings you many other benefits beyond lowering your cholesterol.  A plant-based diet is jam-packed with micronutrients (minerals, vitamins) in a form easiest for your body to use. Some plants that are excellent sources of protein are beans, lentils, quinoa and soy-based foods such as tofu and tempeh.  

But before you start to imagine a future devoid of steak or chicken, the good news is that just replacing some of your meat protein with plant protein will make a difference.  One suggestion I have is to be what I call a “part-time vegetarian,” by participating in “Meatless Mondays.” .  Also, on the days when you are going to have meat protein, be it white or red meat, be sure to pile up your plate with lots of  leafy greens, which are great for your overall health and may even help prevent cancer. The majority of your plate should be filled with nutrient-dense foods such as fruitsvegetableswhole grains and legumes. In addition to their cholesterol-busting properties, these nutrient-dense, plant-based foods contain minerals, like magnesium, potassium, calcium and natural sodium, that help keep the heart healthy and functioning properly.

Other foods to consider for better managing cholesterol are walnuts and almonds.  According to a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, walnuts can decrease your “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing the amount of “good” HDL cholesterol.  And almonds, which have become ubiquitous – think of almond milk and almond butter, for example – have been shown to be able to reduce cholesterol levels by up to almost 20 percent.  And whichever of these nuts you prefer, they also bring you a variety of benefits beyond helping to better manage cholesterol.

Again, it’s fine to heave meat – both red and white – but in moderation.  Just be sure to watch your portion sizes and include plenty of fresh vegetables, nuts, fresh fruit, legumes, and fish in your diet.  And, of course, minimize processed foods, alcohol, added sugars and empty carbs.

Enjoy your healthy life!


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