Cutting red and processed meat consumption by half significantly lowers the amount of LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease, a small investigation has found.

Red and processed meats are typically high in saturated fatty acids, which can raise blood LDL cholesterol and lead to cardiovascular disease. Scientists with the University of Nottingham looked at whether simply reducing, rather than eliminating, these foods could make a difference in health markers.

To help answer this question, 46 trial participants reduced their red meat intake for 12 weeks. Instead, they ate white meat, fish or non-meat substitutes, or reduced the portion size of their red meat. Their blood was tested at intervals throughout the study.

The drop in LDL cholesterol was the most significant change observed. Male participants (who tended to have the highest levels) saw the biggest drop, of about 10%, said study lead Andrew Salter, Ph.D. 

The researchers said they were also “surprised” to see a drop in red and white blood cells during the trial. They recommended that people who cut back on meat educate themselves about replacing nutrients that may be lost with a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains.