NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People using a diet centered on fruits and vegetables to lower their cholesterol may be able to introduce lean beef and get similar results, suggests a new study.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, are similar to those of past research that found red meat may be fine in moderation. The new study, while small, was uncommonly well controlled, with participants' diets closely monitored.

"It isn't all that different from what people were saying," said Dr. Elizabeth Jackson, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Health Systems, who was not involved in the study.

"It was very well done, and that is one of the things that are difficult with nutrition science," said Jackson. "You could never do data like this on thousands of patients."

The new research followed 36 people with high cholesterol as they ate four different diets for five weeks each.

Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and her colleagues closely monitored the men and women between late 2007 and early 2009.

Of the four eating patterns followed by the participants in different stages of the study, the "healthy American diet" allowed for more oils, saturated fat and refined grains compared to the "DASH" diet based on fruits and vegetables, and two other diets that each included lean cuts of beef. But all diets had about the same number of calories.

To make sure each person stuck to the regimens, participants in the study ate one meal a day at Penn State's Metabolic Diet Study Center between Monday and Friday. The rest of the meals were also prepared by the Center and packed to be eaten later.

At the outset, the mean LDL, or "bad," cholesterol for the group was 139 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) and mean total cholesterol was 211 mg/dL. Those are considered borderline-high numbers according to the National Institutes of Health's standards. The group's mean HDL, or "good," cholesterol was 52 mg/dL, which is about the recommended amount.

Compared to the healthy American diet, which slightly raised cholesterol, the vegetable- and fruit-based DASH diet and the diets including lean beef lowered LDL and total cholesterol to a mean of 129 and 200 mg/dL, respectively.

The diets also slightly lowered the group's mean levels of "good" cholesterol, which the researchers said can be explained by the fact that saturated fat raises HDL.

The lean beef diets were lower in saturated fat than an average American diet, which contains more full-fat cheese and butter.

The beef diets included between 4 and 5.5 ounces a day of lean meats, primarily in the form of top round, chuck shoulder pot roast and 95-percent-lean ground beef. Meats were grilled, braised, or in the case of ground beef, fried.

The study was jointly funded by Penn State and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, said it's important to make sure a person watches their entire diet.

"I think it's really important that the public understands that and is not going to go hog-wild with beef," said Salge Blake.

"We just have to make sure that the portions stay lean and small, and that it's a part of a heart-healthy diet," Salge Blake told Reuters Health.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Online December 20, 2011.

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