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The risks and rewards of red meat

Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post. This week, Ellen Loreck, MS, RD, LDN;, weighs in on red meat.

Picture this: You're out to dinner and there are juicy porterhouse steaks, sumptuous burgers, and tender ribs on the menu. Salivating yet? Then you worry that eating red meat, particularly fatty and processed meat, poses additional health risks. So, the question is: Should you eat these tasty meats and if so, how much?


The warning

A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that an increased intake of red meat, both unprocessed and processed, was associated with a higher risk of death. Red meat was defined as beef, pork or lamb. About 8-9 percent of deaths could have been prevented if participants ate fewer than 1.5 ounces of red meat per day or 10.5 ounces per week. Substituting fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and whole grains for red meat significantly decreased mortality risk. There were more than 100,000 people in this study who were followed for 28 years and the results were overwhelmingly convincing.


So what's in red meat that may increase mortality risk? Saturated fat and trans fats have been shown to be the major contributors to cardiovascular disease. With the exception of seafood, animal fats have the highest amount of saturated fats. There is a strong body of evidence that a higher intake of saturated fatty acids increase total blood cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs or the "bad" cholesterol). In addition, trans fatty acids, mostly from processed foods and some naturally occurring in meat or dairy, raise LDL cholesterol as well as lowering high-density lipoproteins (HDLs or "good" cholesterol). Most fats with higher amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids are solid at room temperature. These "solid fats" can be found in beef or pork fat, including bacon, sausage, hot dogs and ribs. In addition to the cardiovascular disease risk of certain fats, preservatives in processed meat, specifically sodium and nitrates/nitrites pose a risk as well.

In addition to cardiovascular risk, red meat may increase the risk of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. Several components of red meat, including compounds created by cooking at high temperatures, are possible carcinogens. In addition, heme iron, found in red meat, and iron overload may also be associated with an increased cancer risk.

The good news

So, enough gloom and doom from eating red meat. The real issue is that it tastes good and many of us like meat. Are there any health benefits from eating red meat? Absolutely! Red meat is high in protein – just a 3 ounce portion provides about a third of what most adults need daily. Proteins are a part of every cell, tissue and organ of the body. In addition, red meat is a good source of iron, needed to carry oxygen and for cell growth. Red meat also contains zinc, needed for immunity and the building of proteins, and B-vitamins, particularly B-12 and niacin, which are needed for metabolism. Both iron and Vitamin B-12 are better absorbed from meats vs. other, non-animal sources.

Select lean

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Small portions of lean red meat can certainly fit into a healthy diet. Fortunately, the USDA has recently made it easier for you. There are now Nutrient Fact labels for ground meat and turkey, as well as for many popular cuts of raw meats and poultry. Look for the lowest percentage of saturated fat on the labels. You'll see grams of saturated fat and a percent Daily Value (DV). The DV is in the context of eating 2000 calories and 20 grams of saturated fat per day but aim for the lowest grams of fat and lowest percentages available. For example: if you choose a 4-ounce portion of ground beef of varying fat percentages, 95% lean contains 2.5 grams of saturated fat (13% DV), 90% lean has 4.5 grams of saturated fat (23% DV) and 80% contains 9 grams of saturated fat (43% DV). According to USDA regulations, extra-lean cuts of beef are: eye of round, roast or steak, sirloin tip side steak, top and bottom round and steak and top sirloin steak. Look for the words Choice or Select, instead of Prime. Another way to decrease unhealthy fats is to trim meat before cooking, drain after cooking and let fats harden and then discard. Placing cooked items in the refrigerator will allow fats to harden or rise to the surface of liquids so they can easily be cut or scooped away.

Bottom line

Limit red meat to about 11 ounces/week as part of a healthy diet.


Select the leanest cuts of meat available.

Limit processed meats such as bacon, sausage and hot dogs.

Add more fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and whole grains into your diet.

Enjoy your meat, just in small and lean doses.