Most Americans take it for granted that if they want to lower their risk of heart disease they should switch from eating red meat to eating chicken. As a result, US and world-wide poultry consumption has tripled since 1980 and surpassed beef consumption.
The switch from beef and pork to chicken has been driven in large part by widespread recommendations to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol.
For example the American Heart Association (AHA) (in its typically misguided) way says:
In general, red meats (beef, pork and lamb) have more cholesterol and saturated (bad) fat than chicken, fish and vegetable proteins such as beans. Cholesterol and saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol and make heart disease worse. Chicken and fish have less saturated fat than most red meat.
Instead of listing any facts or studies relevant to your cardiovascular health the AHA choses to repeat the meaningless first sentence again in the last sentence (beef, pork and lamb have more cholesterol and saturated fat than chicken, fish and… beans becomes chicken and fish have less saturated fat than most red meat.)
In between these redundant sentences the AHA lays out the mostly discredited dogma -“cholesterol and saturated fat…make heart disease worse.” In the AHA’s opinion all saturated fats, no matter the source are dangerous (see here.) Despite the fact that the Dietary Guidelines of American no longer consider cholesterol a macronutrient of interest, the AHA still wants to focus on it.
At LIvestrong the claim is repeated that by choosing skinless chicken breasts over red meat your bad cholesterol (and risk of heart disease) will be lowered. Furthermore, Livestrong repeats the unsubstantiated trope that you will better manage your weight by eating low fat food.
A chicken breast is relatively low in saturated fat compared to many protein alternatives, especially when the skin is removed. By substituting chicken for higher-fat cuts of meat, you will lower your risk of developing heart disease by reducing your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Eating lower-fat alternatives will also help you maintain a healthy weight. Grilling, broiling and baking are great cooking methods to keep the fat content at its lowest.
When we carefully examine the evidence, however, there is no scientific support for either of these claims-switching to chicken from beef has never been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, more recent studies show the switch won’t improve biomarkers that predict long-term risk of cardiovascular disease.
And switching to chicken from beef does not improve weight management.
Studies Show No Change in BioMarkers
This 2012 meta-analysis found
Changes in the fasting lipid profile were not significantly different with beef consumption compared with those with poultry and/or fish consumption. Inclusion of lean beef in the diet increases the variety of available food choices, which may improve long-term adherence with dietary recommendations for lipid management.
and this 2017 meta-anaysis of randomized trials
support that the consumption of ≥0.5 compared with <0.5 servings of total red meat/d does not influence blood lipids, lipoproteins, and/or blood pressures, which are clinically relevant CVD risk factors. These results are generalizable across a variety of populations, dietary patterns, and types of red meat.
Eating Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat
Once again I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here but it bears repeating- the concept that switching from a high fat food item to a low fat item will cause weight loss is totally false.
There are actually numerous studies showing that there is no difference between chicken and beef consumption on weight or body fat:
1. Melanson et al. conducted a 12-week randomised, controlled trial of overweight women on an energy restricted diet with either lean beef or chicken as the major protein source along with moderate exercise. There was no difference in weight loss or % body fat or blood lipid profiles between the patients on the beef or chicken diet.
2., Mahon et al. compared consumption of lean beef or chicken as the primary protein source over 12 weeks in a hypocaloric diet in 61 obese females. There was no difference between the chicken or beef eaters in the amount of weight loss, fat loss or drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Finally, here’s a 2014 RCT study of 49 obese adults who were randomly assigned to consume up to 1 kg/week of pork, chicken or beef, in an otherwise unrestricted diet for three months, followed by two further three month periods consuming each of the alternative meat options.
There was no difference in BMI or any other marker of adiposity between consumption of pork, beef and chicken diets. Similarly there were no differences in energy or nutrient intakes between diets
Vegetarians Uniformly Condemn Chickens As Unhealthy
It’s interesting that a Google search for the healthiness of chicken versus beef yields the standard dietary dogma from mainstream nutritional sources like the AHA or the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics but also a large number of sites that want to convince you of how unhealthy chicken is.
These sites are vegan or vegetarian sites such as plantbasednews.org which lists these six “shocking” reasons why you should stop eating chicken:
At least one of the reasons is clearly documented:
-As Consumer Reports reported in 2014, 97% of 300 raw chicken breasts purchased at stores across the U.S. contained potentially harmful bacteria .
Several of the reasons are more ethical/moral in nature and I leave it up to my readers to decide how important these are to them.
-“The poultry industry has a devastating impact on the environment” related to pollution from factory farms.
-“chickens are intelligent animals”
-“The slaughter of birds is horrifying”
The Guardian.com has a good article on the horror of factory farm chicken raising entitled “If consumers knew how farmed chickens were raised they might never eat their meat again” which I recommend to those who are not already familiar with the conditions in which 99.9% of broilers are raised.
One “shocking reason” listed by plantbasednews appears untrue-“chickens are stuffed with cancer-causing arsenic” The FDA in 2017 indicates that the animal drug which raised arsenic levels in chicken livers (3-Nitro) had been withdrawn from the market.
Bottom Line-No Universal Health Reason To Switch From Red Meat To Chicken
There are many other factors which go into the overall effect of beef and chicken on our bodies. For one thing, how the meat is prepared and what accompanies it will have a much greater influence on health than whether it is chicken or red meat.
It’s time to rid America of the idea that chicken is healthier than beef-it is not and has never been supported by good scientific studies.
If you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease don’t assume you can only eat skinless chicken breasts as meat for the rest of your life.
The change from beef to chicken definitely won’t help you lose weight.
And it won’t reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Beef in moderation can definitely be part of a heart healthy diet and a weight loss diet. Just be sure to eat plenty of fresh vegetables, nuts, fresh fruit, legumes, and fish along with your red meat. and minimize processed foods, added sugars and empty carbs.