It’s a widely established notion that white meat is generally healthier than red meat. But a new study is pushing back against this popular belief.
Red meat and white meat, primarily poultry, have the same negative effects on blood cholesterol levels, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition . The researchers themselves were surprised by the findings, not to mention most doctors and dietitians and the general public.
Moreover, the headline-grabbing conclusion was reached whether or not the monitored diets consumed by study participants contained high levels of saturated fat from other sources. Saturated fats are proven to increase blood cholesterol. The study was led by scientists at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) – the research arm of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.
“When we planned this study, we expected red meat to have a more adverse effect on blood cholesterol levels than white meat, but we were surprised that this was not the case – their effects on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent,” said the study senior author Ronald Krauss, M.D., senior scientist and director of Atherosclerosis Research at CHORI.
The study’s primary finding, though, was not a surprise: Plant-based proteins derived from vegetables, dairy and pulses, which include beans, lentils and peas, provide the best nutritional options for heart health.
Plant-Based Foods Recommended
“The findings are in keeping with recommendations promoting diets with a high proportion of plant-based food but, based on lipid and lipoprotein effects, (the findings) do not provide evidence for choosing white over red meat for reducing (cardiovascular disease) risk,” write the researchers.
Dr. Krauss, who is also a UCSF (University of California at San Francisco) professor of medicine, noted that the meats studied did not include grass-fed beef or processed products such as bacon or sausage; nor did it include fish.
The U.S. government’s dietary guidelines , also known as My Plate, focus on plant-based options, says Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Community Heath at Baptist Health South Florida.
“Half of the government’s ‘My Plate’ is fruits and vegetables, while the other half is grains and protein,” says Ms. Talamas. “I want to emphasize that 75 percent of the plate has always been plant-based. That may be something you haven’t realized. The recommendations have never had a lot of animal proteins.”
Red Meat’s Link to Heart Disease, Colorectal Cancer
Consumption of red meat has become unpopular because of its long-established link to heart disease. Government dietary guidelines have encouraged the consumption of fish and poultry as a healthier alternative to red meat. Moreover, a diet high in red meat, saturated fat, processed and cured meats is considered a risk for colorectal cancer, which is the second-leading cancer among women and the third-leading cancer among men.
As part of the study, researchers divided healthy men and women into two groups, according to whether they regularly consumed high levels of saturated fatty acids or low levels of saturated fatty acids.
Within these two arms of the study, the researchers randomly assigned the participants — who were 21 to 65 years-old and had a body mass index (BMI) of 20 to 35 — to a red meat group, a white meat group, and a nonmeat protein diet group. They all consumed the allocated foods for four weeks.
Afterward, the researchers measured low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol), levels of apolipoprotein B, small and medium LDL particles, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (“good” cholesterol). Consuming both red and white meat raised blood cholesterol levels more than consuming equivalent levels of plant-based proteins.
“Can you be plant-based and include some animal protein? Yes you can,” says Ms. Talamas. “But in the United States, protein is not a nutrient of concern. Many of us are eating too much protein anyway. You can stick to having a limited amount of animal protein and still have a plant-strong or plant-based diet.”