The results showed that eating a diet high in saturated fat plus either the red meat or white meat diet resulted in similar levels of increased LDL blood cholesterol compared to the plant protein diet.
A diet high in saturated fats increases the risk for heart disease by increasing levels of LDL cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol. LDL cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque, which can clog and narrow arteries and lead to heart attack or coronary artery disease. The more unhealthy saturated fats you eat, the more LDL cholesterol your body makes. Because poultry fat is primarily under the skin, it’s easier to remove than the fat distributed throughout red meat. For this reason, people have long thought poultry to be the healthier choice.
But a recent study shows that lean poultry may not be any healthier than lean red meat. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was part of the Animal and Plant Protein Cardiovascular Health Trial, in which 113 adults were randomly assigned to one of three diets for a month: 1) a diet rich in lean cuts of beef and pork, 2) a diet rich in lean cuts of chicken and turkey, or 3) a diet rich in plant proteins. After each month, each participant’s diet was changed so each participant tried each diet. However, half the participants were on a diet high in saturated fat, regardless of protein source. The results showed that eating a diet high in saturated fat plus either the red meat or white meat diet resulted in similar levels of increased LDL blood cholesterol compared to the plant protein diet.
These findings indicate that there is less health difference between red meat (beef, pork) and white meat (poultry) than previously thought. Although most diet guidelines for heat hearth and the latest government dietary guidelines advocate for decreased red meat consumption and increased poultry consumption, this may not be the best advice. There is growing evidence, including this study, that a plant-based diet is better for heart health.
Decreasing our meat intake might be difficult. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that the average consumer ate a record-breaking 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry. This is an average of 10 ounces of meat per day, per person — far above the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than six ounces of meat of any kind per day. Reasons for our excess meat intake probably include a current obsession with protein, lower meat prices and the popularity of low-carb diets. So has dietary advice for hearth health changed? Not really. The key takeaway from this study is to watch out for saturated fat regardless of the source. Here’s how to do that:
Choose lean cuts of red and white meat, such as skinless poultry breast and loin cuts of beef and pork.
Remove the skin from poultry. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you do this before or after cooking; just don’t eat the skin.
Trim any visible fat from all meat before cooking. Skim any fat from stews or soups. Drain cooked, crumbled ground meat, and rinse it under hot running water.
Cook meat without adding saturated fats, such as butter, lard, shortening, bacon grease and even coconut oil. Avoid frying your meats. Grill, bake or broil instead.
Avoid processed meat, such as lunchmeats, bacon, hot dogs and sausages. These are higher in fat and sodium and contain potentially cancer-causing nitrates.
Eat more fish and plants. Incorporate a meatless meal or two into your weekly menu. Try to eat (non-fried) fish at least a couple of times a week. Include plenty of whole grains, like quinoa, barley and brown rice.
Mind your portions. We really don’t need all the protein that we are eating. Aim for no more than six ounces of meat of any kind per day.
Diet is just one risk factor for heart disease, but it is one that you can control.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.