Can Red Meat Have a Place in a Healthy Diet?

Studies suggest a link between red meat and diseases like cancer. Let moderation be your guide.

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Red meat gets an awfully bad rap. Studies have associated heavy consumption of red meat with a shorter life and with a higher risk of diabetes, colon cancer, and cardiovascular disease. And vegetarian diets, which cut out all hues of meat, are linked with better health and longer life. That doesn't mean, however, that you have to erase red meat from your diet in pursuit of better health.

First, what do and don't we know? "There's a lot of evidence that high consumption of red meat has adverse health effects, and there's also evidence that some plant proteins have a positive effect," says Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Studies associating red meat consumption with disease don't actually prove cause and effect. It's tough to imagine a trial that would randomly assign some people to abstain from red meat and others to consume it over a long enough period of time to see the effects of diseases like cancer. But the studies we do have seem to point toward some connection.

There are many hypothesized mechanisms to explain how red meat might contribute to health problems, and they likely vary by disease, Willett says. Behind the increase in diabetes risk, for example, seems to be meat's strongly absorbed iron content; red meat contains heme iron, more readily available to your body than the iron found in plants. As for cancer, carcinogens are produced during high-temperature cooking, especially in charred meat. Or the culprit may be saturated fat, which has been associated with some forms of cancer. It could be that people who eat more red meat eat less of something else that has beneficial health effects, like vegetables and fish. We simply don't know.

As with most things, moderation goes a long way. You may have heard about a study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine that found a "modest" increase in mortality for older men and women who ate the most red meat versus those who ate the least. But those 20 percent who ate the most red meat were eating a lot of it—about 4.6 ounces per day, or more than 32 ounces a week. The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests no more than 18 ounces of cooked beef, pork, or lamb a week.

Including some red meat in your diet is "perfectly fine," says Tara Gidus, a nutrition performance coach and American Dietetic Association spokesperson. She says you should pick lean cuts of meat to reduce the saturated fat content and avoid processed meat (which in the recent study was also associated with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer). And "don't char the heck out of it," she says. Some folks also prefer grass-fed beef, saying it not only has health benefits that grain-fed cows lack but that it tastes better and is kinder to the animals and land.

Whatever color of meat you eat, remember that most nutritionists recommend protein occupy only about 25 percent of the real estate on your plate. Another 25 percent can come from whole-grain based foods and a full half from vegetables and fruits.