There are many conflicting beliefs about the potential effects of red meat on health, as some varieties have been linked to chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer. But red meat also contains vital nutrients like protein, vitamin B12, and zinc.
Red meat is the meat of non-bird mammals, normally red when raw.
This article reviews the evidence on the health effects of red meat, including possible benefits and downsides of incorporating it into your regular diet.
Types of red meat
Before discussing the health effects of red meat, it’s important to distinguish between different types of meat.
Red meat comes from non-fowl mammals and is named such because it is red when raw.
Beef, pork, lamb, venison, and boar are examples of red meat. Chicken, turkey, and other meats from fowl (birds) are white meat because these are white after being cooked.
Besides the specific animal it came from, meat can also be distinguished by how it’s raised and processed. Here are some key terms to know:
- Conventional meat: Conventional meats are from animals that are usually raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms,” which confine animals and provide them with grain-based feeds. Beef that is not labeled “organic” or “grass-fed” is likely conventional and from CAFO cows.
- Grass-fed meat: It comes from cows grazing on grass and foraging for their feed. They are not raised in a CAFO.
- Organic meat: To have an organic label, meat must come from animals that are given 100% organic feed and forage and are raised in a way that accommodates grazing and other natural behaviors. They also do not receive antibiotics or hormones.
- Processed meats: These products are typically from conventionally raised animals and undergo various processing methods, such as curing or smoking. Examples include sausages, hot dogs, and bacon.
- Unprocessed meats: Meats that aren’t cured, smoked, or heavily processed are typically unprocessed. However, since all meat is processed to some extent, the term “unprocessed” generally refers to minimally processed meats, such as ground beef or sirloin.
Summary: It’s important to distinguish between different kinds of meat. For example, regarding health effects, grass-fed and organic meat may differ from factory-farmed or highly processed meat. However, processed meat can also be labeled as organic in some cases.
Nutritional value of red meat
Red meat contains several essential nutrients, including protein, vitamin B12, and zinc.
For example, 4 ounces (oz.) or 113 grams (gm) of 80% lean ground beef provides:
- Calories: 287
- Protein: 19 gm
- Fat: 23 gm
- Carbohydrates: 0 gm
- Vitamin B12: 101% of the daily value
- Zinc: 43% of the daily value
- Selenium: 31% of the daily value
- Niacin: 30% of the daily value
- Iron: 12% of the daily value
The protein in beef is complete, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids humans must get from food. Your body needs protein for muscle and tissue growth and maintenance.
Beef is also a great source of vitamin B12 — a water-soluble nutrient necessary for nervous system functioning — and zinc, a mineral vital for the immune system.
On the other hand, red meat is high in saturated fat. Though research shows that saturated fat does not directly increase the risk of heart disease, it can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
Additionally, highly processed meats, like bacon and sausages, have a more notably different nutritional profile than less processed cuts of meat. In particular, they are often very high in salt and contain other preservatives.
Excess sodium intake may be associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, especially for people more sensitive to salt’s effects.
The way that meat is raised can also slightly affect its nutritional composition. For example, grass-fed beef is typically lower in total fat and saturated fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. However, these differences are relatively small.
Summary: Red meat is an excellent source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and other vital nutrients. However, it may also be high in saturated fat and sodium, which can adversely affect health.
Health effects of eating red meat
While the health effects of red meat on health have been heavily researched, most of these studies are observational, meaning that they’re designed to detect associations but cannot prove causation (cause and effect).
Observational studies tend to have confounding variables — factors other than the ones being studied that might influence the outcome variable.
It’s impossible to control for all of these factors and determine if red meat is a “cause” of any health outcome. That limitation is critical to keep in mind when reviewing the research and determining if red meat is something you’d like to incorporate into your regular diet.
Red meat and heart disease
Several observational studies show that red meat is associated with a greater risk of death, including heart disease.
One study in 43,272 males showed that consuming more red meat — including processed and unprocessed varieties — was associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
Furthermore, the same study concluded that substituting red meat with plant-based proteins such as legumes, nuts, or soy could reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Other research indicates the risk may vary between processed and unprocessed meat.
Another large study, including 134,297 individuals, found that consuming at least 5.3 oz. (150 gm) of processed meat per week was significantly associated with an increased risk of death and heart disease.
One of the reasons processed meats may be more strongly associated with heart disease risk is the high salt content. Excessive sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure.
Conversely, the study of more than 130,000 participants found no association between unprocessed red meat consumption, even in amounts of 8.8 oz. (250 gm) or more per week.
Another review of controlled studies concluded that eating half a serving (1.25 oz. or 35.4 gm) or more of unprocessed red meat daily doesn’t adversely affect heart disease risk factors, such as blood lipids and blood pressure levels.
Randomized controlled trials — considered higher quality than observational studies — appear to support these results.
Summary: It’s still important to remember that processed and unprocessed red meat is high in saturated fat, which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease. For this reason, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 6% of total daily calories, choosing lean cuts of meat when possible, and limiting consumption of processed meats.
Red meat and cancer
Observational studies show that processed and unprocessed red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, especially colorectal and breast cancers.
In fact, in 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) cancer agency classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” They also classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” noting that processed meat has been shown to cause colorectal cancer.
A review of studies also found that people who consumed high amounts of processed and unprocessed meats had a 9% and 6% greater risk of developing breast cancer, respectively, compared to those who consumed the lowest amount.
While it’s not fully understood how red and processed meats increase the risk of certain cancers, it’s thought that using nitrites to cure meat and smoking meats can produce carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. High-heat cooking, such as grilling, may also create cancer-promoting compounds.
That being said, more research is needed to understand the effects of processed and unprocessed red meat intake on cancer development.
Red meat and type 2 diabetes
Some research suggests that red meat consumption may be linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
For example, one study found that replacing one serving of red meat daily with a serving of eggs was linked to a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even after adjusting for other factors like body mass index and belly fat.
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Similarly, another study showed that swapping red meat with other protein sources was tied to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. This association was found for processed and unprocessed meat varieties but was more significant with processed red meat.
Furthermore, according to a review of 15 studies, people who consumed the highest amounts of processed and unprocessed red meats were 27% and 15% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, respectively, compared to those who consumed the lowest amounts.
Still, more high-quality studies are needed to evaluate the relationship between red meat intake and type 2 diabetes and to understand whether other factors may also be involved.
Summary: Some studies suggest a link between red meat intake, heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and death. Other studies suggest this applies mainly to processed meat. As such, more research is needed.
How different cooking methods impact the health effects of red meat
The way red meat is cooked also affects how it influences your health. When meat is cooked at a high temperature, it can form harmful compounds.
These include heterocyclic amines (HCAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and advanced glycation end-products (AGEs).
According to the National Cancer Institute, lab experiments suggest that these compounds may change DNA and promote cancer development.
However, more research is needed.
Here are some tips to minimize the formation of these substances when cooking red meat:
- Use gentler cooking methods, like stewing and steaming, instead of grilling and frying.
- Minimize cooking at high heat, and don’t expose your meat directly to a flame.
- Limit charred and smoked food. If your meat is burnt, cut away the charred pieces.
- If you must cook at high heat, flip your meat frequently to prevent it from burning.
- Before cooking, cook your meat in a marinade, like one made with honey and herbs. Marinating may help decrease the formation of HCAs.
Summary: To prevent the formation of potentially harmful substances when cooking red meat, choose gentler cooking methods and avoid burning your meat.
Should you eat red meat?
Though red meat contains several essential vitamins and minerals, these nutrients are also found in various other food sources.
Suggested read: What is saturated fat and is it unhealthy?
Furthermore, more recent studies suggest that increased red and processed meat consumption may be tied to several chronic health conditions.
For this reason, many health organizations recommend limiting your intake of red meat, including the American Diabetes Association, WHO, and AHA.
That being said, there’s no need to eliminate red meat, as it can still fit into a balanced diet in moderation.
If you add red meat to your diet, be sure to opt for unprocessed varieties, choose lean cuts when possible, and enjoy it alongside a variety of other protein sources as part of a well-rounded diet.
Summary: While red meat can fit into a balanced diet, many health organizations recommend limiting your intake. If you do decide to add red meat to your diet, be sure to opt for unprocessed varieties, choose lean cuts, and enjoy in moderation alongside other sources of protein.
Red meat appears to have health benefits and potential downsides.
On the one hand, red meat contains several essential nutrients, including protein, vitamin B12, zinc, and selenium.
However, it’s also high in saturated fat, and some processed varieties may be high in sodium and preservatives, which can negatively affect health.
Furthermore, several observational studies link red meat consumption to higher risks of heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and death. However, research shows that the type of red meat and its preparation may influence how it affects health.
Overall, while more research is needed into the effects of red meats on human health, red meat can fit into a balanced diet in moderation, especially by choosing lean, unprocessed varieties whenever possible.