To lower cholesterol levels, your best bet may be a plant-based diet.
For years, many health experts have thought that swapping out your red meat for white meat was the way to go.
Red meat has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. White meat, on the other hand, has long been believed to be the superior option.
However, new research from Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) suggests that white meat, such as poultry, is just as harmful to your blood cholesterol levels as red meat.
So, if you want to keep your blood cholesterol levels in check, it’s best to hold back from eating too much of either type of meat.
Non-meat proteins — such as vegetables, dairy, and legumes — proved to be most beneficial for cholesterol levels, according to the study published Tuesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
“This new study is interesting in that increases in cholesterol from the consumption of animal meat is comparable between red beef and white poultry,” Dr. Ethan Yalvac, an interventional cardiologist with Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, told Healthline.
“However, the findings do support our current recommendations that saturated fats in general should be avoided as much as possible regardless of source,” he added.
The researchers recruited more than 100 healthy adults who were split into two groups. The first group ate a diet high in saturated fats, while the second followed a diet low in saturated fats.
The participants then followed three different diets — a red meat diet, a white meat diet, and a non-meat protein diet — for four weeks each.
Beef made up the bulk of the red meat diet and chicken composed the white meat diet.
The researchers collected blood samples from the participants at the start and end of each diet to measure total cholesterol along with low-density lipoprotein, or LDL — the “bad” cholesterol that can cause plaque to build up in your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease.
The research team expected to find that red meat was more harmful than white meat. To their surprise, however, they discovered that red and white meat had the same impact on cholesterol levels, including LDL, when they had the same saturated fat levels.
Participants’ LDL levels were lower after they’d consumed plant-based proteins.
The study also found that red and white meats with higher levels of saturated fats increased the amount of large LDL particles.
This is puzzling because it’s the smaller particles, not the large ones, that are more associated with cholesterol plaque build up, according to Yalvac.
While studies like this one help us better understand the relationship between meat consumption and heart disease, it’s clear there is still much more to the story, he added.
“Our results indicate that current advice to restrict red meat and not white meat should not be based only on their effects on blood cholesterol,” the study’s senior author Dr. Ronald Krauss, a senior scientist and director of atherosclerosis research at CHORI, said in a statement. “Indeed, other effects of red meat consumption could contribute to heart disease, and these effects should be explored in more detail in an effort to improve health.”
LDL and very low density lipoprotein, or VLDL, are two types of lipoproteins — or a combination of proteins and fats in your blood — that carry cholesterol and triglycerides throughout the body.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that helps build cells, and triglycerides are a type of fat that stores energy in your cells.
LDL transports the cholesterol, and VLDL carries the triglycerides.
While our bodies need both LDL and VLDL to function, having too much of them can cause plaque to build up in our arteries and spike up our risk for heart disease or stroke.
“Elevated LDL cholesterol has been demonstrated in several large scale trials to be consistently linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Nicole Harkin, a board-certified cardiologist and lipidologist with Manhattan Cardiovascular Associates.
Additionally, lowering your LDL cholesterol levels can reduce your cardiovascular risk, Harkin explained.
High levels of triglycerides have also been associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease. However, most studies have not demonstrated that reducing triglycerides lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, she added.
Dietary guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently changed and no longer focus on dietary cholesterol and LDL levels.
According to health experts, there was not enough scientific evidence to put a hard limit on cholesterol.
That said, Yalvac continues to advise patients to aim for an LDL level less than 100 mg/dl and a triglyceride level lower than 150 mg/dl.
In general, the lower your VLDL and LDL levels are, the less plaque buildup you’ll have, and the lower your risk of heart disease will be.
The vast majority of health experts recommend following a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, according to Harvard Medical School.
This study adds to the growing body of evidence that plant-based sources of nutrition should make up the bulk of our diets, Harkin said.
“Patients should try to avoid as much processed and packaged foods, which tend to be high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat, as well as animal products, particularly processed meats,” Harkin recommended.
People should also aim to eat more fiber, as it naturally lowers cholesterol levels.
“Increase soluble fiber intake, which reduces the absorption of cholesterol from food – such as oatmeal, kidney beans and lentils, broccoli, apples, pears — really most veggies and fruits,” Yalvac advised.
Our understanding of cholesterol and heart disease is still evolving. While we still need plenty of research to fully understand how cholesterol affects our health, this study supports the fact that people should hold back on eating saturated fats, regardless of where it came from.
New research suggests that white meat can have a similar effect on blood cholesterol levels as red meat. Although the federal dietary guidelines recently dropped cholesterol limits, health experts continue to advise patients to aim for LDL levels of 100 mg/dl or lower. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that following a plant-based diet is healthiest.