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Surprise Finding About Chicken and Cholesterol

When it comes to eating for heart health, researchers have spent decades warning about the dangers of consuming red meat, because it raises cholesterol levels in the blood. Now a new study has implicated chicken—one of the go-to alternative meats—in elevating cholesterol just as much as beef does.

Our family practice doctors at Cohen Medical Associates sorted through the study’s findings to help you make sense of them.


All about cholesterol

Cholesterol is a necessary component that your body produces on its own. It helps hold cells together and create digestive enzymes, various necessary hormones, and vitamin D. But when we consume additional cholesterol from animal products, too much of the wrong kind can lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The two main types of cholesterol are low-density lipoproteins (LDL)—the so-called “bad cholesterol”—and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good cholesterol.” LDL cholesterol builds up on the walls of arteries, narrowing or “hardening” them (known as atherosclerosis), and leading to CVD. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, acts as a kind of cleaning agent, stripping out excess LDL cholesterol. Thus, the higher your HDL reading and the lower your LDL on a blood profile, the better.

Consuming saturated fats from animal products increases the concentration of LDL in the bloodstream. These include not only meats, but butter, cream, and various cheeses.


The study’s findings

The study, published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was admittedly small, containing only 113 participants. But the findings were clear: Regardless of the source of meat-based protein, participants’ blood cholesterol was higher than those who obtained an equal amount of protein from plant-based sources.

The study randomly assigned participants to one of three diets for a month: lean cuts of beef, lean cuts of chicken or turkey, or a diet entirely comprising plant proteins. At the end of a month, the participants ate normally to allow their blood profile to return to previous levels. Then the diets were switched so that all participants tried all three diets. The researchers measured their LDL cholesterol at the end of each test diet.

“When we planned this study, we expected red meat to have a more adverse effect on blood cholesterol levels than white meat, but we were surprised that this was not the case—their effects on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent,” Ronald Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, and study senior author, said in a news release. “Their effects on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent.”

Those on the plant-protein diet saw the healthiest results on their blood cholesterol levels.


What to do

So what does this mean to you and your family?

The study results affect those who are trying to bring down high levels of LDL cholesterol more than those who are not at high risk of heart disease. And meat is a good source of such nutrients as zinc, vitamin B12, and iron, as well as high-quality protein.

But everyone should be aware that animal protein is a source of saturated fat that ultimately can mitigate the nutrient benefits contained in meat sources. That’s why it’s best to keep portions small, choose lean cuts of meat, remove the skin from chicken, and lean toward obtaining proteins from plant sources as much as possible.

Good sources of plant protein include:

  • potatoes
  • beans and lentils
  • tofu
  • tempeh
  • broccoli
  • peanuts
  • nuts and seeds.


If you have any questions about this or any other nutrition issues, don’t hesitate to ask us.

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