You’re probably aware that dietary cholesterol is a hot topic in the nutrition world. There are new studies frequently coming out about the connections between food, cholesterol, and health conditions like heart disease.

Over the years, studies have found some associations between eating red meat - like beef, pork, and lamb - and an increased risk for developing high cholesterol (though, some studies have shown mixed results).1 Having high cholesterol is one risk factor for heart disease.

This is largely due to the saturated fat content of meats, and the ability of saturated fat to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.2 Some new research also points to Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) - a byproduct of chemicals in red meat - as well as the iron load of red meat, as possible other culprits.3,4 For this reason, you may have heard that to lower cholesterol you need to limit red meat.

But, what about white meat? You might be surprised to know that no studies have really evaluated the effects of white meat on cholesterol, like fish, chicken, and other poultry. That is, until now.

What the newest research is saying

A new study was published recently in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at just that.5 Researchers wanted to compare the impacts of eating red meat versus white meat on cholesterol. Are white meats better for us in terms of cholesterol?

In the study, 113 generally healthy adults aged 21 to 65 years old were randomly assigned to one of two groups - either a high or low saturated fat diet group. Within each group, participants were then provided either a diet high in red meat, white meat, or plant-based protein for 4 weeks each, in random order. Heart health biomarkers were measured after each dietary pattern to evaluate the impacts.

Specifically, the objective was to test whether (and how much) biomarkers of heart health, like LDL and other blood fats, differed after people ate red meat compared to white meat or plant-based protein sources. Additionally, researchers wanted to know if blood cholesterol was affected at all by eating high or low amounts of saturated fats.

The researchers found that LDL cholesterol and apoB (lipoproteins involved in causing plaque buildup in your arteries) were higher after consuming meat of any kind - red or white - when compared to a plant-based, meat-free diet.6 There were also no large differences between the impacts of red and white meat consumption. In other words, both types of meats increased LDL cholesterol.

But, before you go throwing out all your meat, although the cholesterol did go up, the LDL that increased was the large LDL particles. Large LDL doesn’t stick as easily to the artery walls as small, dense LDL. So, really, even though cholesterol went up, it didn’t actually increase risk of heart disease.

What does this mean for you?

Although research has shown that a high consumption of red (and now also perhaps white) can affect biomarkers that may increase risk for heart disease, it’s important to remember that nutrition is never a black and white science. This study really just adds more to the confusion in my opinion.

Meat is a good source of many nutrients, such as protein, iron, omega 3 fats, and vitamin B12, among other important vitamins and minerals.7 Of course, you can reduce your saturated fat intake by consuming meat grilled or baked, rather than fried or breaded. Enjoy them alongside other nutritious whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, to create balanced meals.

Unless you’re eating meat daily for every meal, I don’t see a need to eliminate it from your lifestyle if you enjoy it. Like everything else, moderation is key in designing a healthy diet that fits your personal needs, tastes, and goals.

Yours in health-

Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

IVL Community Registered Dietitian

References

  1. Li D, Siriamornpun S, & Wahlqvist ML, et al.Lean meat and heart health. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2005;14(2):113-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15927927
  2. DiNicolantonio JJ & O’Keefe JH. Effects of dietary fats on blood lipids: a review of direct comparison trials. Open Heart. 2018; 5(2): e000871. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6074619/
  3. Wang Z, Bergeron N, & Levison BS, et al. Impact of chronic dietary red meat, white meat, or non-meat protein on trimethylamine N-oxide metabolism and renal excretion in healthy men and women. Eur Heart J. 2019 Feb 14;40(7):583-594. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30535398
  4. Quintana Pacheco DA, Sookthai D, & Wittenbecher C, et al.Red meat consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases-is increased iron load a possible link? Am J Clin Nutr. 2018 Jan 1;107(1):113-119. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29381787
  5. Bergeron N, Chiu S, & Williams PT, et al. Effects of red meat, white meat, and nonmeat protein sources on atherogenic lipoprotein measures in the context of low compared with high saturated fat intake: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. nqz035, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqz035
  6. Shapiro MD & Fazioa S. Apolipoprotein B-containing lipoproteins and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. F1000Res. 2017 Feb 13; 6:134. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5310383/
  7. Pereira PM & Vicente AF. Meat nutritional composition and nutritive role in the human diet. Meat Sci. 2013 Mar;93(3):586-92. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23273468