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The Newest Science on Heart-Healthy Diets

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The Newest Science on Heart-Healthy Diets
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The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet has been helping people lower their risk of cardiovascular disease through decreasing cholesterol levels and blood pressure since the early 1990's. Most recently, the DASH diet was heralded as the total diet in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. The DASH diet is characterized by being rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, beans, nut, and seeds. The DASH diet also is low in saturated fat, refined grains, added sugar, and red meat.

Red meat is typically "off-limits" in a heart-healthy diet in an effort to control saturated fat. But is this really necessary? The need to avoid red meat to reduce saturated fat is a message that has been misinterpreted by media and health professionals. While it's true lower-quality cuts and processed red meat products do contain higher levels of saturated fat, red meat isn't even among the top five major contributors of saturated fat to the American diet (full fat cheese is number one). There are also 29 cuts of beef certified as lean by the USDA. These cuts have a fat content that falls between chicken breasts and chicken thighs. Some of these cuts include: 95-percent lean ground beef, top round, shoulder pot roast, top loin (strip) steak, shoulder petite medallions, flank steak, tri-tip and even t-bone steaks.

Survey data shows that one of the main reasons people avoid beef in their diet is the thought that it's unhealthy and bad for your heart; despite the fact that other surveys show most Americans report enjoying beef. With that information at my disposal, 5 years ago as a nutrition PhD student, I set out with a team of researchers at Penn State to answer this question: Does lean beef have a place in the DASH diet?

Today, that research is finally published. And after weighing and measuring every single thing 36 different people put in their mouths for almost 6 months, we have a solid answer to our question: Yes. Lean beef can be included in a DASH diet.

After being on both the DASH and BOLD (the DASH diet with 4.0oz/day of lean beef) diets, study participants experienced a 10-percent decrease in their LDL ("bad") cholesterol. We also looked at a third diet, the BOLD+ diet, that was higher in protein (28 percent of total daily calories compared to 19 percent on the DASH and BOLD diets). The BOLD+ diet included 5.4oz of lean beef per day. After following the BOLD+ diet for 6 months, participants experienced similar reductions in LDL cholesterol as with the DASH and BOLD diets.

The rigorously controlled nature of our study (we weighed and measured everything participants ate and each participant ate each of the three diets) allowed us to make the very conclusive statement that lean beef can be included in a heart-healthy diet and that you can enjoy 4-5.4oz of lean beef per day while still meeting current dietary recommendations for saturated fat intake.

You can read the full research paper here.

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