by Kaetlin Zink
According to Medical News Today, the average consumption of red meat per person has dropped drastically, from 145.8 lbs. per capita in 1970 to 106.6 lbs. in 2017. Across the past ten years alone, red meat intake has diminished by approximately ten pounds per person, with 2014 encountering a record-breaking low intake since 1960- just 101.7 lbs. per person.
As plant-based diets continue to rise in popularity, we start to question just how healthy red meat is and whether we should be eating it.
The Downsides and The Upsides
A big deterrent has stemmed from the multiple bodies of research linking red meat, which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, to cancer (being the major risk) and other chronic diseases.
After analyzing upwards of 800 studies to assess the effects of red or processed meats on different types of cancer, the World Health Organization’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) came to this conclusion: For every 50-gram portion of red or processed meat consumed daily, your risk for developing colorectal cancer (when abnormal cells form in the lining of the large intestine, also known as the colon, or the rectum) increases by 18%.
The IARC also found evidence supporting a link between red meat consumption and a heightened risk for pancreatic and prostate cancers.
Another recent National Institutes of Health-AARP study involving upwards of half a million older Americans concluded that those who ate large amounts of red or processed meat across a ten-year-span were likely to have shorter life expectancies than those who ate smaller quantities.
In particular, participants who consumed as much as four ounces of red meat per day had a higher likelihood of dying from cancer and heart disease compared to people who consumed the least- about half an ounce per day, according to WebMD. It is important to note here that epidemiologists considered the increased risk as “modest” in the study.
While some studies have suggested a connection between red or processed meat consumption and cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, and other chronic conditions, findings have been widely inconclusive.
In 2007, an expert panel representing the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research reported that findings only show a strong correlation between red or processed meats and certain types of cancer- specifically colorectal. Evidence is suggestive, though still limited in scope to confirm a link to lung, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.
Rashmi Singa, PhD and lead author of the National Cancer Institute study brings up a noteworthy point. “The level of evidence is what people look at. If there are twenty studies that say one thing and two studies that say the other thing, you believe the twenty studies.”
The Benefits Beneath the Doubt
Underneath the potential health risks associated with red meat, when the appropriate amount is consumed (no more than 18 ounces per week), there’s no way of concealing its many key vitamins and nutrients.
Some of these benefits include:
- Important source of B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 — not found naturally in plants — responsible for making DNA and keeping red blood cells, which transport oxygen to body cells and deliver carbon dioxide to the lungs, healthy
- High in selenium, which regulates thyroid function/metabolism and acts as an antioxidant
- High zinc content which promotes a properly functioning immune system, cell growth, fertility, and wound healing
- High in heme-iron, which is better absorbed than plant-derived iron
- Major source of protein, which helps build strong bones and muscles
- Very small amount of Omega-3 fats for heart health (besides oil-rich fish, few other foods actually contain healthy amounts of omega-3’s)
- Naturally low salt content, with the exception of processed meat products
- Other vitamins and minerals like vitamin D and potassium
“Calorie for calorie, beef is one of the most nutrient-rich foods. One 3-ounce serving of lean beef contributes only 180 calories, but you get ten essential nutrients,” says Shalene McNeil (Ph.D. executive director of nutrition research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association).
If you enjoy red meat but are concerned about its health risks, instead of trying to give it up entirely, simply be more conscious about the types you’re consuming. Having reasonable portion sizes and choosing lean cuts with minimal fat would be ideal.
Defining Lean Cuts
For meat to be given the label of lean, a three-ounce serving must contain less than ten grams of total fat, four and a half grams or less of saturated fat, and less than ninety-five milligrams of cholesterol.
If you’re purchasing beef, be sure to check the U.S. Department of Agriculture grading, too. While beef labeled as “prime” is considered top grade, it also contains the highest fat content. Most supermarkets sell beef classified as “choice” or “select.” For the best cuts of red meat, choose a select grade or anything with “loin” in the name: sirloin tip steak, top sirloin, pork tenderloin, or lamb loin chops.
Quality beef selections consist of round steaks and roasts (like eye round and bottom round), chuck shoulder steaks, filet mignon, flank steaks and arm roasts. For ground beef, choose those labeled with a minimum of 95% lean. Be sure to check nutritional labels, too, because frozen patties can have as much as 50% fat.
Quality, lean pork selections include loin roasts, bone-in chops, and loin chops.
MyPyramid government guidelines recommend five to six and a half ounces of protein daily from a variety of sources, ranging from lean meats, to nuts, and seafood.
The American Institute of Cancer Research, a non-profit organization with a primary focus on preventing cancer through diet and exercise, advises taking in no more than eighteen ounces of cooked red meat per week.
They also recommend staying away from any processed meats, like sausage, bacon, ham, and hot dogs, as research shows a connection between these foods and an elevated risk for colon cancer.
Like with everything else, red meat is safe to consume in moderation, especially when making a conscious effort to reduce your consumption of processed red meat.