“White Meat Just as Bad as Red Meat for Cholesterol, Finds New Study.”
So stated a headline a few months ago, with similar ones used by dozens of other media outlets. They were referring to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that was led by one of our editorial board members, endocrinologist and lipid researcher Ronald Krauss, MD. Called APPROACH (Animal and Plant Protein and Cardiovascular Health), it looked at the effect of different diets on blood cholesterol. But the headlines didn’t quite do the study justice.
Here’s our brief take on it, based on a conversation we had with Dr. Krauss.
The basics: The study included more than 100 healthy adults, ages 21 to 65, who were assigned to eat either a diet low in saturated fat (supplying about 7 percent of calories, which is in the range of what experts recommend for heart health) or a diet high in saturated fat (about 14 percent of calories), with protein levels kept constant. The saturated fat levels were achieved by manipulating the fat content of dairy foods and other items.
Within each group, participants followed one of three protocols, in random order, for four weeks each: a diet where the protein came primarily from red meat, from white meat (poultry), or from plants (such as beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetables). None of the diets included seafood.
The results: The study found that with all three protein sources, high saturated fat intake raised LDL (“bad”) cholesterol as expected. But the study also showed that with both the red and white meat diets, LDL levels were consistently about 7 percent higher than with the plant-based diet, regardless of whether the saturated fat intake was high or low. This is important since high LDL cholesterol raises the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
The qualifications: Large population studies suggest that consumption of red meat is associated with CVD in ways that may have nothing to do with its saturated fat content and its effect on blood cholesterol. This association has not been seen with poultry intake, however.
The takeaway: The findings bolster the recommendation to shift toward a more plant-based diet. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid all meat, since both red and white meat are nutrient-rich foods that can have at least an occasional place in a healthful diet. Still, though the evidence is tentative that red meat is unhealthful in ways beyond its saturated fat content, it’s strong enough to advise choosing white meat more often than red.