Is White Meat Healthier Than Red Meat? A New Study Says Probably Not

If you're trying to lower your cholesterol, the best option is to ditch both meats.

It’s been long known that cutting back on red meat is good for your heart. We’ve consistently been encouraged to opt for white meats — like turkey or chicken — if we’re watching our cholesterol levels. Now, researchers have found that white meat may have the same effects on cholesterol as red meat — and it pretty much goes against everything you've ever heard. So what's the deal? Is white meat healthier than red meat? Or are they about the same?

In the study, published June 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a group of healthy men and women between the ages 21 and 65 were randomly assigned three different diets rich in red meat, white meat and non-meat (plant-based) protein, one month at a time, for four months (for the fourth month, they ate their usual foods). 

The study’s authors tested the 113 adult participants for LDL cholesterol (sometimes called “bad” cholesterol), as well as some other types of cholesterol components. All of the participants cycled through the four diet plans, though half the participants ate more saturated fat (in the form of added butter and other full-fat foods) than the other. 

The results? Not shockingly, the plant-protein diet raised LDL cholesterol the least. But when it came to meat’s effects on cholesterol, chicken had the same results as beef. In fact, eating either kind of meat raised blood cholesterol more than eating plants did — and that was true of both groups, no matter how much saturated fat they also ate. So people who are working hard to be more mindful of their LDL cholesterol levels may not be doing themselves any favors by choosing chicken over beef. 

The study’s author, Dr. Ronald Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, pointed out in a statement that the study did not test the effects of grass-fed beef, fish, and processed foods like bacon and sausages. Before you sprint to your nearest burger joint, here’s the thing: For people looking to improve overall cardiovascular health, choosing white meat over red could still be beneficial, since red meat might contribute to heart disease in other ways not covered by this study. 

Mainly, though, this research is causing waves because it’s the first time anyone has found that when it comes to LDL cholesterol, our knee-jerk reflex to switch to chicken might not make much difference. What does make a clear difference is incorporating more plants into your diet. The study’s participants, during their plant-protein month, ate protein-heavy vegetables, legumes and dairy. 

Plant protein sources (think beans, lentils, peas, edamame, nuts, seeds and grains like quinoa and millet) have the added benefit of delivering fiber. Most Americans are at a fiber deficit, and incorporating more plants into our diets is an easy way to fix that. 

If you’re craving something reddish on your summer grill, alternate ground chuck with one of the new meatless burger substitutes (Beyond Meat and its competitors are flying off supermarket freezer shelves, and can give that satisfyingly meaty mouthfeel). Because for anyone who wants cut back on cholesterol, reducing how much meat you eat, whether it’s white or red, could really move the needle at your next doctor’s checkup. 

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