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Reality check: Is white meat as bad for your heart as red meat?

If you’re at risk of heart problems, the dietary advice has long been to steer clear of red meat.

But a new study suggests that simply replacing your steak with chicken might not be the way to go.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that eating white meat didn’t reduce levels of key harmful proteins any more than eating red meat did.

In this study, the researchers took 113 people and analyzed the levels of atherogenic lipoproteins, like LDL cholesterol, in their blood after they tried a variety of diets: red meat-based, white meat-based, and non-meat.

READ MORE: Processed meat can increase risk of cancer; red meat risky too

The researchers found that people eating either the red or white meat diet had elevated levels of cholesterol and other atherogenic lipoproteins known to contribute to heart disease risk. People on the non-meat diet had much lower lipid levels.

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The findings surprised the researchers, according to a press release.

“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,” said co-author Dr. Ronald Krauss, senior scientist and director of atherosclerosis research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute.

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But how bad is chicken, really?

It would be premature to remove white meat entirely from your diet based on this study, said Dr. Michael Farkouh, director of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre clinical trials unit at Toronto General Hospital.

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“It’s just one study that’s provocative,” he said. The researchers examined just a few markers of disease risk, not whether down the road, people actually ended up developing heart disease or other health issues, he said.

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“There is really no difference between red meat and white meat on this marker,” Farkouh said. “The theory is that diets with white meat should be associated with better outcomes but we just don’t have outcomes in this trial. You don’t have the heart attack, stroke, and death rates.”

More research is needed to confirm whether white meat raises the risk of cardiovascular problems as much as red meat, he said.

READ MORE: Can you cut red meat from your diet and still be healthy?

Red meat is associated with problems though. Two recent studies that followed a combined 81,000 people found that an increase of half a serving of red meat per day was associated with a 10 per cent higher mortality risk. Red meat consumption — especially processed meats — has also been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Red meat in excess is absolutely associated with excessive cardiovascular risk,” Farkouh said. “So it’s directly linked to more cardio, more heart attacks and more cardiovascular events.”

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“We’ve spent a lot of our studies and money and funding to study red meat and we use white meat as an alternative. And this brings into question whether that’s valid or not.”

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Carol Dombrow, dietitian for Heart & Stroke, also noted that the study didn’t compare different kinds of white meats: a skinless chicken breast, for example, is very different in terms of saturated fat content than a chicken thigh with skin.

But for her, the real takeaway is the study’s findings on plant-based diets.

“That was the positive outcome from this study, that when you’re eating plant-based protein, that’s very positive in terms of heart disease.”

“To me that’s the bottom line in this study, is to really increase your plant-based protein.”

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That doesn’t mean that you need to completely abandon meat, just to watch the portion size and frequency, she said, as well as choose leaner meats. These recommendations are similar to those in the newly updated Canada Food Guide.

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She’s concerned that based on this study, people will be afraid to eat white meat, she said. She’d rather focus on the benefits of plant-based foods, and notes that red and white meats can still be part of a healthy diet.

Farkouh agrees. “I don’t think people should take this as white meat consumption is bad for you, but rather non-meat appears to be preferential when it comes to these artherogenic particles.”

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