Does White Meat Raise Cholesterol Like Red Meat?

November 04, 2020

We are all in a constant battle with our cholesterol levels. The challenge is to keep our bad cholesterol (LDL) down and to increase our good cholesterol (HDL). White meat like chicken and turkey have been touted as a healthier choice over red meat, and that includes pork, in the cholesterol war. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates when the saturated fat content is about the same, white meat and red meat have a similar effect on the body’s cholesterol level. 

Before You Bite that Juicy Burger
Mackenzie McCune, MS, RD, outpatient nutrition counselor at Shore Medical Center, said while red and white meat may have a similar effect on cholesterol, that does not mean go ahead and switch out a grilled chicken sandwich for that juicy burger. 

“Keep in mind most white meat products are slightly lower in saturated fat so they are still a better option,” said McCune. “When it comes to significantly decreasing your cholesterol levels, the best option is to transition to a plant-forward diet, one that emphasizes plant-based food and limits meat, to see the greatest results. Switching to a more plant-based diet is supported by the U.S. 2015-2020 dietary guidelines, just like the well-known Mediterranean and vegetarian diets.” McCune  added that the four main factors that affect cholesterol levels are of course diet as well as smoking, physical activity and weight. 

According to McCune, consuming foods high in saturated fat contribute to increased cholesterol levels.  This includes dairy products, baked goods, deep fried and processed foods like hot dogs, lunch meats, sausage and both red and white meat products. McCune continued, “What we tend to forget is food sources such as lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains like barley, quinoa, and bulgur contain high amounts of protein and can contribute to your daily intake of protein without having to rely on red or white meat sources at every meal.” 

Know Your Numbers
McCune said it is important to first understand your cholesterol numbers and know what the HDL and LDL numbers mean. “Understanding your HDL and LDL numbers help you stay on track,” said McCune. “But this is also what your health care providers are for so you are not alone in this. It is important to get yearly blood work and discuss the results with your primary care physician and seek guidance from a registered dietitian on meal planning and other nutrition tips.”  

The Good and the Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol numbers can certainly be confusing. The low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, contributes to fatty build ups that narrow the arteries and put people at risk for heart attacks, stroke and peripheral artery disease. The high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, cholesterol acts like a scavenger and carries some of the LDL away from the arteries and back to the liver where it is processed and eliminated. 

“To make it easier for patients to remember what is good and bad I refer to the LDL as the ‘loser’ cholesterol and the HDL as the ‘hero’ cholesterol,” said McCune. “Having higher levels of HDL lowers the risk for stroke and heart attack by ensuring the plaque or LDL cholesterol is removed from the body and does not cause a blockage.” 

Measuring Cholesterol Levels
The best way to measure cholesterol in the body is through a blood test called a lipid panel or lipid profile. This determines the amount of total cholesterol, which includes LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol as well as triglycerides in blood.  A desirable total cholesterol number is less than 200. When you break down HDL and LDL, the recommendations vary based on your age and gender. Men and women  age 20 and older, for example, should have an LDL level less than 100 mg/L while men in that category should have an HDL of 40 or higher, and women should have an HDL of 50 or higher. 

The Fallout from a High Saturated Fat Diet
“In addition to higher cholesterol levels,” McCune said, “The National Trends Progress Report from the National Cancer Institute states that red meat is associated with an increased risk of colon and rectal m cancer, and evidence also suggests it is associated with some other cancers such as prostate and pancreatic cancer. I don’t put a limit on the amount of red or white meat for a patient. Whether someone is looking for a heart healthy diet specifically or not, I always like to encourage a plant-forward diet.” 

McCune said she encourages patients to consume meatless options for breakfast and lunch and only have meat with dinner. This helps to cut back, plus it is easy on the wallet as meat tends to be the most expensive item on the grocery list. She also suggests they increase the amount of fish and seafood they consume to at least twice a week and decrease red meat to twice weekly as well. The National Cancer Institute current guidelines recommend red meat should be limited to 15-18 oz. per week. According to Registered Dietitian Stephanie Sullivan, Clinical Nutrition Manager for the Shore Medical Center, more conservative minds recommend red meat no more than twice a month and whenever possible, quality grass-fed meats should be chosen.  Sullivan suggested, if consuming red meat, from all sources, it should be limited. “Proper portion size is important. Portion size should be limited to 4 oz. per person,” said Sullivan. “Long gone are the days where you should be enjoying a 12 oz. steak. 

Suggestions from the Registered Dietitian
Meal plans are very individualized and McCune said as a registered dietitian she works very closely with each client to create a plan that works well for them and their daily routine. For someone looking for a general low cholesterol diet guideline, McCune offered a one-day meal plan as a good example. 

Sample Meal Plan

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with skim or non-fat milk and ¼ cup of berries
  • Snack: Greek yogurt with granola
  • Lunch: Salad with unlimited veggies + chickpeas (protein) + low fat cheese such as feta + olive oil/balsamic dressing
  • Snack: hummus + veggies 
  • Dinner: Salmon + brown rice + asparagus 

The proof is in the numbers. McCune said she worked closely with a patient who came to see her with high cholesterol as well as high hemoglobin A1C. They worked together closely to develop a plant-forward diet that would work for this patient and that they could stick with. Within a few months the patient saw a significant decrease in both the cholesterol and A1C. 

For help getting started with your individual nutrition plan schedule an appointment with a member of the Shore Medical Center Outpatient Nutrition Counseling Team by calling 609-653-4600.