Anyone will tell you that if you are going to eat meat, then it’s better to choose white over red, because red meat is well-known for polluting your body with bad cholesterol.
The likes of chicken and turkey are much better for you, it’s common knowledge, right?
Well, maybe not.
The problem with common knowledge is that we don’t always question it. Received wisdom is not always so wise, so it’s a good thing there are scientists who like to test commonly held beliefs and see if they stack up.
Research scientists at the University of California at San Francisco and the Children’s Hospital Oakland wondered whether red meat was worse for your health than white meat and set about testing that hypothesis.
The fruits of their labors were recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
To test the common assumption, they found 113 healthy volunteers aged from 21 to 65 who had a body-mass index between 20 and 35 kg/m2 (which puts some in the normal range, some at overweight and some at obese).
They split them into two groups: a high saturated fat group and a low saturated fat group.
Within each of these groups, the volunteers first consumed their proteins in the form of red meat (but none of it processed, like bacon or sausage) for four weeks, and then white meat (but no fish) for four weeks. For the final four weeks they ate no meats, but had vegetables and dairy instead. The study doesn’t mention whether the cuts included skins, but we’re assuming they did.
Before, during, and after the study, the scientists measured their subject’s total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol (usually called bad cholesterol) to see which diet was the worst.
It should come as no surprise that the high saturated fat dieters had a higher LDL cholesterol level than the low saturated fat dieters.
And the ones who got their proteins from plants and a bit of dairy had lower LDL levels than those who ate meat.
Now, you might have been expecting a higher LDL cholesterol score for the red meat eaters and a lower score for the poultry fans, but that didn’t happen.
Cholesterol-wise, there was nothing to choose between them.
This means that if you want to lower your bad cholesterol, you could try getting your proteins from vegetables and dairy instead of meat. If you really want to eat meat, then it doesn’t seem to matter whether it came from something winged or something hoofed. One’s no worse for than the other, so long as it’s ‘real’ meat and hasn’t been processed.
If you’ve read our cholesterol program, these findings should not surprise you too much. Both red and white meat (especially the skins) contain cholesterol, and they both need to be cooked before consumption. That means the cholesterol in both will undergo some oxidation during the heating process.
This explains why both meat protein groups had higher LDL cholesterol than the vegetable protein group. It also explains why the high saturated fat group had more LDL cholesterol than the low saturated fat group had, since saturated fat is consumed almost exclusively in the form of meat that needs to be cooked.
Still, when delving deep into the study, the conclusion is not seriously alarming. In previous studies, small LDL cholesterol particles have been found to be far more harmful than large LDL particles were. Large LDL particles pose a coronary heart disease risk, but it’s smaller than the risk you get with small LDL particles.
In this study, the cholesterol differences between the high and low saturated fat groups and between the meat and vegetable groups were mostly in large LDL particles.
This suggests that meat consumption increases a type of cholesterol that is harmful, but not the most harmful.