Is white meat as bad for your cholesterol levels as red meat?

Recent reports claim white meat is as bad for your cholesterol as red. Are they true?

Is white meat really healthier than red?

You’ve probably heard eating too much fatty red meat is bad for your health, while lean meat and chicken are better choices. So, recent headlines claiming white meat is just as bad for your cholesterol levels as red meat might have surprised you.

The reports were triggered by a paper published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in June.

The study did find lean white meat had the same effect on cholesterol levels as lean red meat. While this might be construed as good news by lovers of red meat, more research on this topic is needed for a clearer picture.

How was this study conducted?
The researchers set out to compare three diets: one where the main dietary source of protein came from eating red meat (beef and pork), another where it came from poultry (chicken and turkey) and a third where it came from plant foods (legumes, nuts, grains and soy products).

They wanted to measure the impact of these diets on specific categories of blood fats, as markers of heart disease risk. They tested blood fat markers, including low density lipoprotein cholesterol (or LDL, commonly known as “bad cholesterol”), apolipoprotein B (apoB), and the ratio of total cholesterol to high density lipoprotein cholesterol (or HDL, commonly known as “good cholesterol”).


Read more: How to get the nutrients you need without eating as much red meat


The researchers also wanted to know whether blood fat levels changed more when the background dietary patterns were high in saturated fat, derived mostly from full-fat dairy products and butter, or when they were low in saturated fat.

To achieve this, 177 adults with blood cholesterol levels in the normal range were randomised to follow either a high saturated fat diet (14 per cent of total energy intake) or a low saturated fat diet (seven per cent of total energy intake).

Those within these two groups were further randomly assigned to follow three separate diets for four weeks each: red meat, white meat and plant protein sources. The main protein sources in the meat groups came from lean cuts of red and white meat. In the plant diet, protein came from legumes, nuts, grains and soy products.

Participants met research staff weekly to collect their food products and received counselling on following their specified diet. Participants were asked to maintain their physical activity level and keep their weight as stable as possible, so these factors did not bias the results.

To eliminate any carry-over effects from eating one type of protein to the next, participants were given between two and seven weeks’ break in between each diet and told to return to their usual eating patterns.


Read more: Organic, grass fed and hormone free: does this make red meat any healthier?


What did the study find?
Some participants dropped out along the way, so in the end researchers had results from 113 participants.

Blood concentrations of LDL cholesterol and apoB were lower following the plant protein diet period, compared to both the red and white meat periods. This was independent of whether participants were on a background diet of high or low saturated fat.

There was no statistically significant difference in the blood fat levels of those eating red meat compared to those eating white meat.

We’re often told to limit our consumption of red meat. From shutterstock.com

Eating a diet high in saturated fat led to significant increases in blood levels of LDL cholesterol, apoB and large LDL particles compared to a background diet low in saturated fat.

So, all the dietary protein sources as well as the level of saturated fat intake had significant effects on total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, non-HDL cholesterol, and apoB levels.

How should we interpret the results?
Although the test diets only lasted four weeks each, this study is important. It’s rare to see intervention studies that directly compare eating different types of meat and sources of protein and the impact on heart disease risk factors. This is partly due to the challenge and expense of providing the food and getting people to follow specific diets.

Most studies to date have been cohort studies where people are categorised based on what they eat, then followed up for many years to see what happens to their health.

One review of cohort studies found no greater risk of stroke in those who eat more poultry compared to less poultry, while another showed a higher risk of stroke among those eating more red and processed meat relative to poultry intake.


Read more: Should we eat red meat? The nutrition and the ethics


There are a few things to keep in mind with this study. First, the researchers used the leanest cuts of both red and white meats, and removed all visible fat and skin. If participants were eating fatty meat, we may have seen different results.

The significant variation in breaks between different diets (ranging from two to seven weeks) may have also affected the results. Participants with a longer break would have had more time for their blood cholesterol levels to change, compared to those with shorter breaks.

Finally, in reporting their results, it would have been better to include all 177 participants who began the study. People who drop out often have different health characteristics and leaving them out may have biased results.

This short-term study does not provide evidence that choosing lean white meat over red meat is either better or worse for your health.

But the findings are consistent with recommendations from the Heart Foundation to include a variety of plant-based foods in our diets, foods containing healthy types of fat and lower amounts of saturated fat, and in particular, to choose lean red meat and poultry. – Clare Collins


Blind peer review
The article presents a fair, balanced and accurate assessment of the study. In this study, they showed lean red meat and lean white meat (with all visible fat and skin removed) had the same effect on blood fat levels.

Importantly, plant protein sources (such as legumes, nuts, grains and soy products) lowered blood fat levels compared to the red and white meats, and this was independent of whether the participants had been placed on a background diet low or high in saturated fats. This study did not look at the impact of a fish-based diet on blood fats. – Evangeline Mantzioris


Read more: Three charts on: Australia's declining taste for beef and growing appetite for chicken


Research Checks interrogate newly published studies and how they’re reported in the media. The analysis is undertaken by one or more academics not involved with the study, and reviewed by another, to make sure it’s accurate.The Conversation

Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    COMMENTS

    To make a comment, please register or login
    yeahbut
    4th Jul 2019
    11:03am
    *Newsflash*

    Doctors know stuff all about nutrition, if you do your own research you will know 50 times more than they do.
    Sen.Cit.90
    4th Jul 2019
    11:34am
    'yeahbut': you have a point there. Personally, my red meat consumption is controlled by the price. Since our markets have found the overseas markets so profitable local costs have priced me out. If the dietitian's blurb can be believed they may have improved my health.
    jackie
    4th Jul 2019
    11:30am
    My cholesterol should be great. No meat and coconut oil at all.
    jaycee1
    4th Jul 2019
    1:58pm
    This is rubbish! I follow a mainly meat free diet due to allergies but still have high cholesterol. Very seldom do I eat junk food and never have soft drink. 99.9% it is water, on the odd occasion it will be herbal tea - usually rosehip or another red one.
    After being quizzed on what I eat my doctor can not explain it.
    Tanker
    4th Jul 2019
    2:35pm
    Perhaps like me your own metabolism produces cholesterol. Without medication my cholesterol levels are sky high even when on a fat free diet.
    Tanker
    4th Jul 2019
    2:35pm
    Perhaps like me your own metabolism produces cholesterol. Without medication my cholesterol levels are sky high even when on a fat free diet.
    Hasbeen
    4th Jul 2019
    4:20pm
    I eat a high percentage of red meat, & like it well marbled, with all the fat left on. My LDL cholesterol is low, & my non-HDL cholesterol is also low.

    I consider nutritionists no better than the barrier reef "scientists', who need to generate a new scare every couple of years to keep the research funds flowing.

    Just watch, in a couple of years they will be telling us we should avois many types of nuts.


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