With nearly 40% of Americans suffering from high cholesterol, it’s no wonder why people are constantly trying to find ways to maintain healthy levels. From avoiding tobacco smoking to including exercise in daily habits, there are some standard practices that people take to help lower their cholesterol values. But when it comes to our diet, some advice is less clear if we want to see those levels start to drop. Sure, we know that drinking sugary soda and eating fried chicken with the skin on is pretty much a no-go when trying to support healthy cholesterol values. But when it comes to eating red meat, the recommendations get a little vague.
For this reason, many people may wonder – what happens to cholesterol when eating red meat?
What causes high cholesterol?
Understanding the effect of meat on cholesterol requires understanding what causes high cholesterol in the first place. High cholesterol is a common problem faced by many Americans, and its presence can increase the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and even early death in some populations.
Many factors can play a role in a person’s risk of developing high cholesterol, with some of them completely out of a person’s control. According to experts, lack of physical activity, tobacco smoking and obesity can all put a person at risk of high cholesterol levels. And when it comes to genetics, having a family member with high cholesterol can put you at risk of experiencing the same condition, even if your lifestyle practices are perfect.
Diet plays a big role
Your food choices can have a profound effect on your cholesterol levels, too. Certain dietary patterns have been shown to keep healthy cholesterol levels in check, while others have been linked to causing a sudden rise in people’s cholesterol levels. Diets rich in healthy fats, oats, whole grains, produce, seeds, and nuts tend to be your best bet when trying to maintain healthy cholesterol. Meanwhile, avoiding sugary foods and items rich in saturated fat may help keep cholesterol levels within the ideal range as well.
Saturated fats are particularly to blame
Since eating more saturated fat may be associated with higher levels of bad LDL cholesterol, people who focus on maintaining healthy cholesterol values are sometimes advised to avoid sources of saturated fat, including red meat, as these foods are natural sources of saturated fat.
But eating red meat may not be as bad for total cholesterol as people think, especially when this food is consumed as part of an overall healthy eating pattern.
Does eating red meat cause high cholesterol?
It’s true that certain cuts of red meat are high in saturated fat, a nutrient that can be linked to higher cholesterol levels when eaten in excess. For this reason, it’s common to hear that you should reduce your intake (or even avoid your intake) of red meat when managing your cholesterol.
But is eating red meat a surefire way to increase blood cholesterol levels?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question depends on several factors.
Sure, there are cuts of red meat that are high in saturated fat — think short ribs and steak — and can contribute to high cholesterol levels when eaten too often along with other foods that contribute to high cholesterol levels.
Additionally, people who eat more red meat tend to have unhealthy eating patterns, including drinking more sugar-sweetened sodas and drinking more alcohol. Therefore, observational studies may tend to suggest that eating more red meat is associated with higher cholesterol levels when the overall lifestyle and dietary choices that red meat eaters choose to make contribute to these health risks.
So, yes, eating large portions of high-fat red meat while making unhealthy food choices can lead to high cholesterol levels.
But at the same time, eating reasonable amounts of lean red meat along with nutrient-dense, heart-healthy foods doesn’t seem to contribute to the same concern.
Including red meat along with a healthy eating pattern may not necessarily raise cholesterol levels
If you eat 3-4 ounces of beef with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, you may be surprised to see that your cholesterol levels can stay within normal limits.
According to the data published in American Journal of Clinical NutritionA Mediterranean diet containing small portions of lean beef helped lower bad cholesterol. Another study showed that when included in a heart-healthy, low-saturated fat diet pattern, eating specified amounts of lean beef did not raise cholesterol levels.
If you are a fan of red meat, here are some tips you can follow to keep your cholesterol levels under control:
- Choose lean cuts like sirloin, steak or top
- Stick to a 3-4 ounce serving
- Pair meat with plenty of veggies, healthy fats, and whole grains instead of refined bread, French fries, and sugary desserts
Follow these tips, and you’ll be able to enjoy red meat the cholesterol-friendly way without compromising on your favorite flavors.
Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC
Lauren Manaker is a registered dietitian, book author, and award-winning recipe developer who has been in business for nearly 20 years. Read more