Updated: Jun 12, 2019
A new study may have blown the lid off of our assumption that chicken is better than beef for cardiovascular health.
A study published on June 4, 2019 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition challenges the widespread assumption that eating white meat (chicken) is a better choice for those seeking to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
The findings contradict the commonly held belief that white meat is healthier than red. For the most part, this belief depended on observational studies that pointed to a link between red meat consumption and CVD. The authors of the new study argue that the assumed connection between white meat and cholesterol levels has not been adequately studied.
It's widely thought that the high saturated fat content of red meat contributes to the risk of cardiovascular disease more so than white meat. To test the theory that red meat is the culprit, the researchers, lead by Dr. Ronald Krauss, at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California designed a study that compared red meat, white meat, and a plant based diet. They essentially were testing how different food intakes affected lipid levels and lipoproteins that can cause deposits in the arteries.
The study was a controlled, randomized, dietary intervention. It was conducted in an outpatient setting in the San Francisco area.
According to Medical News Today:
"The 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 to a red meat group, a white meat group, and a nonmeat protein diet group.
Within each group, the participants — who were 21–65 years old and had a body mass index of between 20–35 kilograms/square meter — consumed the allocated foods for 4 weeks.
After the intervention, the researchers measured low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol), levels of apolipoprotein B, small and medium LDL particles, as well as total and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol ("good" cholesterol)."
The research found that consuming both red and white meat raised cholesterol levels equally when saturated fat levels were equivalent. There was no significant difference in large, medium, and small LDL particle concentrations between the red and white meat diets.
According to Dr. Krauss
"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 effect on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent."
In contrast, consuming a plant based diet had a healthier profile. Non-meat sources of protein which include vegetables, dairy, and legumes had a beneficial effect on levels of plasma cholesterol.
The researchers concluded that "The results of the present study support current dietary recommendations to adopt dietary patterns with high vegetable content, but do not provide evidence for choosing white over red meat for reducing CVD risk..."
The take away from this study is that if you have cholesterol issues or a family history of CVD, it is best to emphasize a plant based diet over white or red meat. Eating more fish is also an alternative to be considered. This does not mean banishing meat from your diet plan. Judicious use of meat can be healthy. Red meat and white meat are excellent sources of protein and numerous vitamins and minerals. Just don't think that eating lots of chicken is a potentially healthier food choice than red meat.
There are a few caveats in considering this study.
Keep in mind, that this study in no way indicates what the long-term effects of white or red meat consumption are on developing CVD or on overall mortality due to heart disease. It is saying that white and red meat raise cholesterol equally when saturated fat intake is equivalent. Whether or not saturated fat in the diet actually leads to CVD is outside the scope of the study.
Most of the saturated fat in the diet does not come from dietary intake. The liver creates saturated fat through the utilization of carbohydrates. This raises the question of how relevant dietary saturated fat really is in developing CVD.
Foods, such as cheese and other dairy products that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol have not been so directly implicated in heart disease as red meat. Leading to the possible conclusion that it isn't the saturated fat or even the cholesterol that is the issue. This may explain the French Paradox.
Be prudent in your consumption of white and red meat. There is no need to eliminate either from your diet. Focus on the simple sugars you may be consuming that lead to a wide variety of health issues. Make sure you are consuming ample amounts of vegetables, fish, legumes (if tolerated), a modest amount of fruit, etc.