Is Red Meat Bad for You?

What to consider & know
Close-up of a hand selecting a large package of red meat from a grocery store shelf

It’s the age old food debate – is red meat healthy or not? 

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Put simply, it depends. Health benefits and consequences often boil down to what type of red meat you’re eating, how often and how much. But generally speaking, choosing white meat or vegetarian options are your best bets for living an overall healthier lifestyle.  

Here, registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, discusses the pros, cons and everything you should consider when it comes to consuming red meat.

What is considered red meat?

Meats are categorized as either white or red based off the amount of myoglobin found in the animal’s muscles. Myoglobin is a protein found in meat that produces a red color when it’s exposed to oxygen.

Red meat is the meat of mammals and includes the livestock category, which is pork, lamb, veal and beef.

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What is the healthiest red meat?

“There’s evidence that shows red meat and processed meats – such as bacon and sausage – are not good for your health,” says Zumpano. “Anytime you choose to have red meat, it should be the leanest cut you can find and you should limit the amount.”

Here’s what to consider:

  • Pork: Choose lean options of pork such as a pork loin, tenderloin and center cut chops. Cut any visible fat off the pork. Avoid items such as sausage and bacon.
  • Steak: Choose leaner cuts of steak such as flank, round, sirloin, tenderloin and ball tip. These cuts will usually have less calories and fat and more protein than some of the other options. Cut any visible fat off the steak.
  • Ground meat: A variety of meats are available ground – chicken, turkey, pork and beef. Read labels and select meats that are at least 90% lean meat (no more than 10% fat).

When you prepare red meat, focus on dry cooking methods, like baking, broiling, grilling, roasting, poaching or air frying.

How often should you eat red meat?

Try to limit your red meat consumption to 1 to 2 serving per week, which is 6 ounces or less per week. If you have heart disease or high cholesterol, the recommendation is to limit red meat to less than or equal to 3 ounces per week.

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Are there any health benefits of red meat?

Red meat actually has many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that your body needs. Red meat can be a good source of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. But the cuvette lies in what type of red meat you’re eating and how often.  

Are there any health benefits of not eating red meat?

A plant-based diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and nuts is ideal, like the Mediterranean diet, which also includes fish and other white meats. People who don’t eat red meat (or greatly limit it) generally consume fewer calories, less fat and have a lower risk of heart disease and death. 

Why is eating red meat bad? 

From health complications to how it impacts the environment, here are four reasons to cut back on red meat:  

  1. Potentially cancer-causing. One study categorized processed meats as level 1 carcinogens, placing them in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol. The organization categorized red meat as a level 2a – probable carcinogen. This report looked at the rates of colon cancer and found that eating the equivalent of two slices of bacon per day increases the absolute risk of developing colon cancer by 1%. On the other hand, a diet rich in fiber, fruits and vegetables has been associated with a reduction in risk for the development of colon cancer.
  2. Cardiovascular health. Data has shown time and time again that red meat is linked with high cholesterol, and in turn, increases risk for cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes. Consumption of less meat also is associated with decreased rates of obesity in both children and adults.
  3. High cost. Meats cost significantly more than vegetarian proteins such as beans, nuts and tofu. Replacing one omnivore meal with a vegetarian meal can save more than $1 per person.
  4. The environment. Raising cattle significantly impacts the environment. More than 30% of grains grown in the world are fed to cattle. Cattle themselves produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Cutting back on meat consumption is not only healthy for you, but it’s also healthy for the environment. Reducing meat consumption will help keep our planet healthy for future generations.

5 ways to cut back on eating red meat

  1. Embrace meatless Monday. If you currently eat meat daily, choose one day per week to cook a vegetarian meal. There is a national movement to eat vegetarian on Mondays, but if another day works for your family – choose that day instead!
  2. Try vegetarian tapas. Many people find planning a vegetarian meal intimidating if they’re accustomed to eating a dinner with a main dish of meat. To ease into a vegetarian meal, try making three to four side dishes and serve them family-style. You can let each member of the family pick a dish to try to turn it into a meal.
  3. Start cooking with seafood. Cook fish or other seafood one night per week. Use either fresh, frozen or canned and add it to your weekly menu rotation.
  4. Swap red for white. When cooking your favorite recipes that call for ground meat, reach for ground turkey or chicken instead. These white-meat options work great in dishes such as tacos and chili.
  5. Put veggies on display. Don’t try to replace red meat with imitation meat products like veggie dogs. Instead, embrace the vegetables for what they are. Focus on choosing recipes that highlight vegetables, rather than hiding them.

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