When it comes to cholesterol levels, white meat may be no better than red meat — and plant-based protein beats both

A study published recently in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition sparked interest when it reported that red and white meat have a similar effect on low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol, which is associated with increased heart disease risk. You may conclude, “Well, if chicken is just as bad for my cholesterol as red meat, I may as well order that hamburger.”

But let’s examine the study more closely before drawing any conclusions.

Red meat, white meat, or non-meat?

The study examined whether cholesterol levels differed after consuming diets high in red meat compared with diets with similar amounts of protein from white meat or non-meat sources (legumes, nuts, grains, and soy products). It also studied whether the results were affected by the amount of saturated fat in each of the diets.

One hundred and thirteen healthy men and women, ages 21 to 65, participated in the study. Each study participant was randomly assigned to either a high- or low-saturated fat diet. Then, for four weeks each, and in varying orders, they consumed protein from either red meat, white meat, or non-meat sources.

All of the foods consumed during the study were provided by the researchers (except for vegetables and fruits, to ensure freshness at the time of consumption). To reduce the chances that other factors that would affect cholesterol levels, participants were asked to maintain their baseline activity level and abstain from alcohol. They were also advised to maintain their weight during the study period, and their calories were adjusted if their weight shifted.

White meat has same effect as red meat on cholesterol levels

The study found that LDL cholesterol was significantly higher after consuming the red meat and white meat diets, compared with the non-meat diet. This result was found regardless of whether the diet was high or low in saturated fat, though the high-saturated fat diets had a larger harmful effect on LDL cholesterol levels than the low-saturated fat diets. High-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol was unaffected by the protein source.

Though striking, the study has a number of limitations. The size of the study, 113 participants, was small; the duration was short (only 16 weeks); and there was a relatively high participant dropout rate. The study also did not include processed meats such as sausage, cold cuts, or bacon, which are known to be particularly harmful for heart health, or grass-fed beef, which is often touted as a healthier red meat option.

Focus on plant-based protein

An important point that might be getting lost in the red meat versus white meat conversation is the beneficial effects of non-meat protein sources on cholesterol levels. As the study authors state, “The present findings are consistent with … earlier studies of primarily plant-based, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, or vegan dietary patterns reporting significantly lower total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol concentrations than diets including animal protein.”

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines support healthy, plant-forward dietary patterns. Examples of plant-based diets include the Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diets.

This study looked at plant-based protein sources, and plant-based diets can provide all the necessary protein for optimal health. Here’s a look at the amount of protein contained in a variety of plant-based foods.

Protein content in plant-based foods
Food Serving size Protein (grams) Calories
Lentils 1/2 cup 9 115
Black beans 1/2 cup 8 114
Chickpeas 1/2 cup 7 135
Kidney beans 1/2 cup 8 113
Black eyed peas 1/2 cup 7 112
Pinto beans 1/2 cup 7 117
Soybeans 1/2 cup 14 150
Tofu 1/2 cup 10 183
Nuts 1/2 cup 5–7 160–200
Peanut butter 2 tablespoons 8 190
Flaxseeds 3 tablespoons 5 150
Sesame seeds 3 tablespoons 5 156
Barley (uncooked) 1/4 cup 6 160
Bulgur (uncooked) 1/4 cup 4 120
Millet (uncooked) 1/4 cup 6 190
Quinoa (uncooked) 1/4 cup 6 160

Comments:

  1. erika fedor

    very interesting comments

  2. Kathy McManus

    Congratulations Dani
    People have varying responses to diet and lifestyle modifications. It appears your nutrition changes had a very profound affect on your cholesterol!

  3. Kathy McManus

    It is difficult to show all the details on the results from research articles in this format. However , I am including the citation if readers are interested in reviewing the specific lipid results.
    Citation for the article : Am J Clin Nutr 2019:110; 24-33.
    Authors: Nathalie Bergeron, Sally Chiu, Paul T Williams, Sarah M. King, and Ronald Krauss

  4. Kathy McManus

    Northern beans and navy beans are both in the category of white beans. One half cup of cooked navy beans has 8 grams of protein

  5. Kathy McManus

    You are correct. Meat is a very good source of zinc. Other good sources of zinc are shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts and dairy products

  6. Kathy McManus

    There is saturated fat in cheese. Saturated fat can raise the LDL-cholesterol.
    1 ounce of whole milk cheddar cheese contains 6 grams of saturated fat; 3 ounces of regular ground beef has 8 grams of saturated fat; 3 ounces of chicken breast (without skin) has 1.2 grams of saturated fat.

  7. Kathy McManus

    Yes – The National Trends Progress Report of The National Cancer Institute states:
    “Red meat is associated with an increased risk of colon and rectum cancer, and evidence also suggests it is associated with some other cancers, such as prostate and pancreatic cancer. Examples of red meat include beef, pork, and lamb. Processed meats are products that have been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, and/or the addition of chemical preservatives. Examples of processed meat include hot dogs, sausages, bacon, and luncheon meats. Processed meat is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, and evidence also suggests it is associated with stomach cancer. However, more research is needed to understand how red meat and processed meats influence cancer risk. The increased risk may be explained by the iron and fat content in red meat, and/or the salt and nitrates/nitrites in processed meat. Additionally, when meat is cooked at high temperatures, substances are formed that may cause cancer”

  8. Kathy McManus

    Yes – foods that contain soluble fibers such as oatmeal, kidney beans, chickpeas, apples, pears, Brussels sprouts and black-eyed peas can help lower LDL cholesterol
    When substituting a healthy unsaturated fat (olive oil, avocado, most nuts, nut butters) for saturated fats (butter, cream, cheese, whole milk dairy) LDL cholesterol can be lowered
    Other heart healthy foods include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish.
    The emphasis should be on an overall healthy eating pattern – not just 1 or 2 foods.

  9. Kathy McManus

    This study was conducted by researchers at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, Oakland CA, Department of Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy, Touro University California, Vallejo, CA and Department of Genome Sciences, Life Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA

  10. Kathy McManus

    The cholesterol in shellfish can contribute to the overall dietary intake of cholesterol. However, studies show that saturated fat (and trans fats) have a significantly greater affect on increasing LDL cholesterol than does dietary cholesterol.

  11. Kathy McManus

    In this study, I am assuming the poultry (both chicken and turkey were used) was skinless. You are absolutely correct – poultry skin contains a significant amount of saturated fat compared to skinless poultry.

  12. Kathy McManus

    There is not much research that examines lipid levels for pescatarians vs. vegetarians vs. vegans. A study published 2017 in Nutrition Reviews analyzed 49 observational and interventional studies that compared vegetarian and vegan diets with meat diets and their effects on cholesterol. Vegetarian diets lowered total cholesterol levels as well as LDL and HDL levels when compared to meat diets. The greatest benefit on lipid levels was seen in vegan diets. Plant-based diets typically reduce body weight and saturated fat intake, which may benefit cholesterol management. Many studies support the benefits of fish to reduce risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends 2 servings of fish (preferably fatty fish) weekly. They define a serving as 3.5 ounces cooked

  13. Kathy McManus

    Steve,
    Yes- your change to a non red meat diet along with limiting alcohol can decrease your risk of a gout attack. In addition – losing weight, if you are overweight, regular physical activity, drinking plenty of water and an overall healthy diet – can also support your efforts.

  14. Edmond Van Doren

    To get past gout outbreaks, I went to a no-red-meat diet, replacing with chicken, and cutting down a lot on alcohol. My LDL went down nearly 40 points. I’m sure other factors exist, including heredity, but there seems to be correlation.

  15. John holme

    I’m currently following the pescatarian diet, and rarely eat red or white meat. As I have quite a lot of fish in my diet, particularly oily fish, I would like to know the effect fish as on cholesterol levels. In particular I would like to know how the typical cholesterol levels of a vegan compare to a pescatarian.

  16. Sarah

    Was the chicken consumed skinless? There’s a lot of avoidable cholesterol in chicken skin.

  17. chandrakant

    Does the cholesterol in shell fish affect the total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol

  18. Steve

    Is plant protein as bio available as the protein in meat? I wish there was an answer somewhere without an attached agenda.

  19. Jack Stanfield

    I’m surprised that this esteemed institution would publish a study so subject and duration limited.

  20. Geeta

    Are there some vegetarian foods also which we can eat daily to t reduce the cholesterol level significantly,like which oil is safe if u have high level of cholesterol.

  21. Ron S

    I consume white meats and refrain from red meats because of a study done many years ago that indicated that red meat was much worse for colon cancer.

    Is that still a factor?

  22. Hamid Abbaspour

    KATHERINE – You are not including the amount of Carb one gets with Legumes — extra Carb converts to Cholesterol and carried by Oxydated LDL – Furthermore – It is the Oxydated LDL (Primarly caused by Consumption of Carb) that causes clogged arteries and not necessarily LDL. I would really like to get your opinion on that .
    I am not an expert , I just know enough to be dangerous – I just wish the scientific community could come to its consensus – I have yet to hear a challenge to Ketogenic (not atkins- diet-which is high protein diet) high fat ( plant fat or animal fat) — Perhaps it is individualized.
    Where can I find good information on this matter ?

  23. Mike Hollis

    My LDL and triglycerides fell sharply years ago from unhealthy levels when I stopped eating ground chuck, cheese burgers and fries, FWIW. For example, I replaced beef in chili and spaghetti sauce with ground turkey, 93/7, and started eating chicken breasts. My doctor had said I was Hyperlimpodemic.

  24. Jerry

    You write: “…plant-based diets can provide all the necessary protein for optimal health…”
    Is the established view that ALL ESSENTIAL amino acids can not be synthesized from a pure vegan or vegetarian diet wrong?

  25. Rebecca Ramsay

    Thank you for these comparisons in amounts of colesteral associated with eating red and white meat.

    In general, is there LDL in cheese, and if there is, how does the amount of it compare with the two other categories (i.e., red and white meat)?

    Rebecca

  26. Jared Israel

    The interesting thing about this finding is that it took so long to study the effect of white vs. red meat on LDL. For so many years we all knew — because we were told — that of course red meat had a worse effect. (And remember, beef is the among the best protein sources regarding some nutrients, for example I believe it is second only to oysters in the quantity of zinc per 100 grams.)

  27. Polina C.

    That’s a bunch of major balloni.
    Plant protein is not balanced protein and can stress the liver with too many starches and sugars. Hypothyroidism and a sad life raise cholesterol….

  28. Steven B

    Did the study differentiate between 98%/99% fat free chicken breast and turkey breast compared with red meat? I would think that the 98%/99% fat free white meat would have less implications for LDLs compared to red meat. Thanks.

  29. Faraz

    I was diagnosed with 70%+ blockage in both my mid LAD and Diagonal 1 arteries at the age of 36 a little over 1.5 years ago. I didn’t consent to the recommended angioplasty because I had heard about Dr. Dean Ornish, his research and his heart disease reversal lifestyle program. I have been on Ornish diet for 1.5 years, which means no meat, even of fish of any kind, no oil of any kind, even a single drop, and no dairy product, tea without milk, and my condition has improved remarkably already. I can now even run up the stairs of a pedestrian that is about three floors high without any shortness of breath when I am up there, let alone any chest pain, and I have been walking really fast for half an hour daily without any issues. What baffles me is how come Dr. Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s 30-year or so research finding that a heart patient or people who do not want to get CAD must not eat meat of any kind (along with no oil and no dairy product) was not enough that even today these studies are required. I mean wasn’t it settled when Dr. Ornish and Dr. Esselstyn published their research finding that no meat of any kind, even chicken and fish, is the way to fight heart disease and stroke?

  30. simon mack

    what about white navy beans

  31. Robert J

    I have been reading a lot about statins and cholesterol since my drug pushing primary care doctor is STRONGLY recommending them. It seems there is strong consensus that atherosclerosis is due to inflammation, white blood cells coming to the rescue and cholesterol piling on to treat the inflammation. Therefore the correct treatment is to reduce inflammation. A lot of which can be caused by a change of diet and less meat and more plant based would be important as noted. Saturated fat seems to be less of a problem than all of the chemically extracted vegetable oils and of course trans-fats which still are used but don’t have to be listed as an ingredient because they are “de minimus”. Mark Hyman in “Eat Fat, Get Thin” discusses this and is not a fringe voice coming to the same conclusions. He, and many others, discredit the “link” between high cholesterol and heart disease and atherosclerosis, saying statins have shown little effect in lowering the incidence of same as well as the fact there are many cases of those diseases in people who have low cholesterol. He also states older people with “high” cholesterol seem to have a better prognosis than those with “healthy” levels. I put those last two in quotes as what is high and what is healthy seems to be fungible.

    In the book “Overdosed”, the author, a Harvard doctor and statistician, brings a compelling case against big pharma which wants nothing more than to find “cures” for chronic illnesses that often have side effects requiring another big pharma cure. “Cures” that keep patients on the hampster wheel for life.

  32. Jim McRae

    The article needs to show the data listing the levels of LDL cholesterol on the different diets to assess the difference there is on the high and low saturated diets and the increase seen with animal protein

  33. JACK JAMGOCHIAN

    I WISH THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION HOSPITALS COULD READ YOUR ARTICLES, I COULD GET BETTER TREATMENT .
    JACK JAMGOCHIAN

  34. saifuddin

    sometimes both white meat and red meat are cause of increasing cholesterol levels.

  35. Dani Elliott

    Hi Kathy! I am so glad to see this study…it aligns with my own personal experience. I am a 44 year old female and never in my adult life has my total cholesterol been under 200. I am 5’3″ and 120 lbs…I ate fried food once in awhile, I exercised regularly…I have always followed the “food pyramid guidelines”. I was told its my “genetics”. My last bloodwork results…were all out of range with the total cholesterol being 308. As a last effort to avoid cholesterol meds I switched my diet to 90% plant based with some simple substitutes for the dairy and meats I had been consuming…the dairy and meat we’ve always been told that in smaller quantities was “recommended”. I did this for 3 months. For the first time in my adult life, my total cholesterol is now 189 and all of the test results were now in range. I would imagine that others could benefit from this as well!

  36. Kathy McManus

    The nutrition information is for cooked beans.

  37. Kathy McManus

    This study did not include fish. However, many studies support the health benefits of fish. The American Heart Association recommends 12 ounces of fish per week.

  38. Robin

    Did they look at fish? I’ve always been under the impression that fish is supposed to be good for you, but if it’s classified as “white meat,” maybe not??? I’m a pescatarian and would be interested to know how fish stacks up with non-meat protein sources.

    • Steve

      No white meat seems to be what it used to of late, the amount of Eicosanoids and triglycerides noticable here in the UK not alarming to some as it seems to be a stable of their diet pehaps, but others who do appreciate the healthy benefits associated, a real problem and growing quickly. Oil and cheese aside some great selections could be made of the meat selection to make some non greasy fine dishes if some are willing to take the task on to eliminate much unwanted fat. Lean meat being more expensive to purchase if not almost impossible to find at the same price this blogger finds.

    • Richard

      If you so not object to worms and plastic, fish does provide a good amount of protein and likely omega-3 without all the iron and saturated fat.

      • JOYCE DAVISON

        Richard, I totally agree. After years of studies and becoming a plant-based nutritionist, I have stopped consuming fish, even at a party, where there’s nothing else to eat but carrots and dip. I’ve been vegan for 8 years, and occasionally ate shrimp or scallops for fun, if I were at someone’s house for dinner or drinks. But all fish contain worms (parasites), and shrimp are “low crawlers’, the cockroaches of the sea, and there’s just too much mercury and filth in our waters right now.

  39. azure

    A portion size of cooked barley will provide less than 6 grams of protein if 1/4 cup is a serving size because barley absorbs alot of liquid as it cooks, quinoa does to a lesser extent.
    Not mentioned is that quinoa, a grass, provides a complete protein, so possibly a more valuable source of protein then the rest & it cooks in a relatively short time, similar to white rice.
    The list doesn’t include information re: are the beans listed cooked or uncooked? They also absorb water as they’re cooked so an actual served portion or what someone eats may be less then 1/4 cup dry.

    • Ellen Marie

      The list specified uncooked barley. So one quarter cup of uncooked barley will provide one person with 6 grams of protein after being cooked., if all the cooked barley is eaten by the same person. Yes, if it is divided among 2 or more people, each will get just a fraction of the 6 grams.

  40. craig castanet

    If you can stand the cognitive dissonance, which requires courage, I suggest you start listening to the Carnivore proponents on Youtube. But plant-based advocates are unlikely to be open-minded enough to spend any time listening to the doctors and scientists promoting it.

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