Is Chicken Just As Bad for You As Red Meat?

A recent study is claiming that choosing chicken might not be the healthier option. We asked a registered dietitian to weigh in.

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Photo by: Claudia Totir/Getty

Claudia Totir/Getty

Recent headlines claim that eating chicken is just as bad (if not worse) than eating red meat. This goes against years of health advice that chicken is a better lean protein to consume on a regular basis. Does this mean you should be skipping out on meat altogether? Eating beef and chicken in the same amounts? We asked a registered dietitian to investigate.

First, Here's What the Research Says

The article published July 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the cardiovascular risks after consuming a diet high in saturated fat (from red meat, chicken and plant proteins) compared to consuming a diet low in saturated fat (from the same food sources). More than 100 men and women participated in the study who were randomly assigned to a high saturated fat diet (14% of total energy from saturated fat) or low saturated fat diet (7% of total energy from saturated fat). Within each diet (high or low saturated fat), participants ate red meat, white meat or nonmeat proteins for 4 weeks each in random order.

The researchers found that markers for heart disease (like LDL cholesterol) were higher when participants consumed red or white meat compared to the non-animal proteins, for either of the saturated fat diets. It should also be noted that eating a diet high in saturated fat compared to low in saturated fat did increase markers for cardiovascular disease.

So, What Does This Mean?

This randomized controlled study used lean red or white meat and showed that both can fit in a healthy dietary pattern. The diets were high protein and eating red or white meat protein was shown to support body weight, normal blood pressure and blood sugar. The non-meat proteins did have improved blood lipids and red or white meat did not have any effect on blood lipids with regard to cardiovascular disease risk.

The study found that eating a diet high in saturated fat increases markers for cardiovasular disease. The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 10% of total energy (or calories) from saturated fat. Most Americans, however, eat over the 10% of total energy from saturated fat which can lead to cardiovascular disease. So just getting your saturated fat down to the recommended amount is probably a good idea.

Should You Change You Diet?

Before deciding you need to adopt a plant-based diet, consider this: Other recent published studies like a 2017 study published in the same journal and a 2019 study published in the journal Circulation both found that consuming red meat with a variety of non-animal proteins did not affect cardiovascular risk factors (like total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol). This is a complex issue and how the studies are designed with other foods consumed may also play a role.

For example, there are a variety of choices when it comes to red meat — high fat, processed and lean. Lumping all red meat into one category when they don’t have the same nutritional content can understandably cause confusion.

Finally, What Should A Meat Lover Do?

This research is certainly important in the conversation and more research is needed. However, if you love red and white meat, you can still continue to enjoy it in a balanced, varied diet. Choose lean cuts of red and white meat along with non-animal sources and stick to the dietary guidelines recommendation of no more than 10% of total calories from saturated fat.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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