Meat’s Role in a Heart-Healthy Diet

Moderation is Key

To achieve healthy cholesterol levels, you don’t have to avoid red (or white) meat entirely. However, you do have to find healthier alternatives to hamburgers.

For, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) notes: “Ground beef adds more fat — and more artery-clogging saturated fat — to the average American’s diet than any other single food. Plus, you can’t trim away fat from ground meat like you can with steak or pork.” And don’t assume you’re safe if you stick with “lean” or even “extra lean” ground meat. The USDA allows ground beef that is up to 22.5 percent fat to be called “lean,” even though most other foods labeled “lean” must contain no more than 10 percent fat. One 4-ounce serving of lean ground beef still contains 16 grams of fat, 7 of them saturated.

Beef and pork per se are not bad. In fact, today’s pork is much leaner than it used to be, containing on average 31 percent less fat, 14 percent fewer calories, and 10 percent less cholesterol than just 20 years ago. Today’s beef is 27 percent leaner than 20 years ago, with more than 40 percent of beef cuts having no external fat at all. And although beef, pork, and lamb are high in saturated fat, about 30 percent of that fat comes from stearic acid, a type of saturated fat that does not appear to have the same heart-damaging effects of most saturated fat; some studies even suggest it can lower cholesterol.

One study compared the effects of the National Cholesterol Education Program’s Step Diet, which eliminated all beef and pork in favor of chicken and fish, to a diet that included 6 ounces of lean red meat five to seven days a week. The result? Both groups saw their total cholesterol drop 1 percent and their LDL 2 percent, while their HDL increased 3 to 4 percent.

While lean meat is no bad guy, you don’t want meat to make up most of your meals. Why not? Because that would mean you’re not getting as much fish or plant-based protein from foods like beans, which have clear cholesterol-lowering benefits. So you don’t have to scratch meat off your shopping list, but you should limit your consumption in order to make room in your diet for other heart-healthy foods.

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