With so much conflicting information, it can be difficult to know which advice to follow and which to forget when it comes to eating red meat. While red meat has been demonized as bad for our health and for the environment, a moderate amount of red meat can be part of a healthy diet as it’s packed with protein (about 22 grams in a three-ounce portion), and is also loaded with zinc and vitamin B along with twice as much iron as chicken.
While red meat was called a “probable carcinogenic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015, and a study in 2012 found that consuming it raises the risk of heart disease and premature death, you can still eat it in moderation and enjoy good health too, if you do it the right way. There is no doubt that red meat is filled with nutrients, but based on the evidence to date, limiting red meat consumption is important.
The downsides come with overindulging.
What are some of the risks you take by eating red meat regularly?
Cancer. Cancer is arguably the most well-established health implication. As mentioned, WHO published a report that included red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” which means there is some evidence that it can raise the risk of developing cancer. Additionally, the experts concluded that processed meats, which basically refers to “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation” – is “carcinogenic to humans,” meaning that consuming it increases the risk of cancer.
Heart disease. A study published in the Journal Circulation in 2010 tested nurses over a 20-year period and found that those who consumed three servings of meat each day had a 29% greater risk of chronic heart disease. Red meat is high in an amino acid called carnitine, that when digested by the microbes in the gut produces a toxin called TMAO. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that patients with the highest levels of TMAO had a 50% increase in cardiovascular and chronic heart disease risk. Research in 2014 out of Sweden revealed that men who consumed over 75 grams of processed red meat a day were at 1.28 times higher risk for heart failure than those who consumed less than 25 grams daily.
Type 2 Diabetes. For every two ounces of processed red meat, an increase of 32 percent of type 2 diabetes was found, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Obesity. There has been much scientific evidence linking excessive red meat consumption to obesity as well, likely due to the high-fat content.
Diverticulitis. This condition characterized by inflammation in one or more of the sacs lining the wall of the colon known as diverticula can lead to multiple severe complications like the perforation of the colon, abscesses, and peritonitis, which is swelling and an infection the in the abdomen lining. While the exact causes of this health problem are unclear, it’s been suggested that following a diet that eating a lot of red meat may increase the likelihood of developing diverticulitis. Compared to those who reported eating a lower quantity of red meat, men who reported eating the highest quantities were shown to have a 58 percent greater risk of developing diverticulitis.
Mortality. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looked at statistical links between meat consumption and cause of death. The researchers found that those who consumed the reddest meat tended to die younger and to die more often from cardiovascular disease and cancer. They also had other problematic lifestyle factors such as exercising less, weighing more, drinking more alcohol and smoking tobacco, however, even when the researchers compensated for the effects of their unhealthy lifestyle, mortality and red meat were still associated.
The prudent course would be to decrease red meat consumption, especially processed meats, which has been found to dramatically raise the risk of disease and a shorter lifespan. It’s kind of like being a good gambler, while it isn’t guaranteed, it puts the odds in your favor. Numerous studies have suggested that for good health, a plant-based diet is best, including a position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that recently claimed it can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 62 percent, while also lowering the risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
So, how can you eat red meat in a healthier way?
Consider portion size. The American Institute for Cancer Research advises eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat each week. Even better, is to think of red meat as a side dish rather than the main dish. Don’t make meat the star of a meal, instead, turn things around and feature vegetables as the main course, such as cooking it in a stir-fry, and avoid ordering it when dining out at restaurants often have portions that are 16 ounces or even more. Aim for three ounces or less, keeping in mind that three ounces are about what would fit in the palm of your hand.
Choose the right cut. You can avoid unnecessary fat and calories by selecting pieces of meat that include the word “loin” or “round” on the label, and make sure that it’s grass-fed. Grass-fed is much healthier, with more antioxidants than grain-fed beef.
Make protein substitutions. If you’re used to consuming red meat regularly, consider having a regular Meatless Monday – a Meatless Tuesday, Wednesday or any day of the week that works best for you is fine. Making a special occasion out of this healthier choice is a great way to stay motivated in your goal to limit red meat, as well as get children and other family members excited too. Substitute healthier protein sources as often as you can in order to reduce your mortality risk. Go for wild-caught fish, poultry, legumes, nuts, and seeds instead. Science has shown a clear mortality reward for doing so. If someone who has a 50% risk of dying in the next 25 years replaces one serving of red meat per day with chicken, for example, their risk decreases to about 42%, and to about 40% when replacing red meat with nuts.
Cut portion sizes in half initially. To get used to smaller portion sizes, start by cutting them down by half initially. For example, if you usually eat a double cheeseburger, go for a single burger instead. Before every meal, think about how much meat you usually eat, and replace that with plant-based foods which makes it easier to wean weaning yourself off of meat by allowing your stomach a chance to feel full on less meat and more vegetables.
While it may take a little getting used to, both the planet and your body will thank you for limiting the amount of red meat that you eat.