With most of the latest research associating red meat with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, it's no wonder many people think it's off-limits.
But the truth is, you don't have to completely swear off your favorite hamburger and spaghetti bolognese dishes. Red meat, such as beef, pork, veal and mutton, can have a place in a healthy diet — as long as you choose the right cut and portions.
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In fact, following a Mediterranean-style diet that includes some lean and unprocessed red meats can help improve cardiometabolic disease risk factors, a small July 2018 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests.
"Lean beef can be consumed regularly, balancing with other recommendations such as eating fish twice weekly and eating plant-based at least once a week," Allison Baker, RDN, vice president of business development at Baze, a personalized nutrition company, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Here are ways you can incorporate healthy amounts of red meat into your diet and how to be mindful of what you're eating.
1. Red Meat Packs the Protein
Red meat, particularly grass-fed beef, is an excellent source of protein. For example, a four-ounce serving of lean beef strip steak supplies about 26 grams of protein, which is more than half of the grams of protein most people need in a day.
More importantly, red meat also delivers complete proteins. Unlike incomplete proteins, complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein that your body needs to carry out basic bodily functions. But because your body is unable to create these essential amino acids, so you must get them from food, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
"While all animal-sourced proteins are what is considered 'complete,' the sometimes lower-fat levels observed in grass-fed beef can result in an overall higher percentage of protein, ounce for ounce," Baker says.
The protein you get from red meat contains all the amino acids necessary for building and repairing muscles. As you get older, you lose three to five percent of muscle mass, also known as sarcopenia, Harvard Health Publishing reports. Having muscle mass is especially important as you age because it prevents injuries and falls, and allows you to carry out everyday functional movements.
Protein has also been linked to weight loss because it curbs hunger and keeps blood sugar levels stabilized, preventing cravings. High-protein intake can help preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss, according to a May 2017 review in Advances in Nutrition.
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight as a dietary allowance for protein. But that number is just a ballpark of what you should get daily and not necessarily what you need to eat every day. Your protein intake depends a lot on your height, weight, age and activity level. To figure out the amount of protein you should aim to get on average, check out this calculator.
Read more: How Much Protein Is Right for You?
2. Red Meat Provides Iron
Iron plays a large role in delivering oxygen from the lungs to organs and tissues throughout the body and is important for cellular functioning and producing hormones.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that men get at least 8 milligrams of iron daily and women 18 milligrams. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need more and should get at least 27 milligrams of iron and 9 milligrams, respectively.
"Iron is a critical micronutrient for everything from cellular oxygen transport to healthy skin and nails," Baker says. "Unfortunately, iron is not absorbed well in every situation, and the low bioavailability coupled with iron losses in menstruating women, can place individuals at risk for a deficiency," Baker explains.
Lean red meat provides a good amount of iron, depending on the cut of meat. For example, 4 ounces of grass-fed ground beef supplies 2.7 milligrams of iron. Lean red meat also contains a form of iron that's more easily absorbed than the iron in plant-based foods.
"Red meat is not only an excellent source of iron in its own right, but it also contains the heme form of iron, which is more bioavailable than the forms found in plant-based sources," Baker says. "In addition, meat-based forms of iron are further accompanied by a peptide present in meat known as MFP factor, which enhances iron absorption," she says.
3. It Contains Zinc
Another benefit of forking into lean red meat every now and then is that it supplies a good dose of zinc. You need zinc from foods because it helps build muscle mass, strengthen your immune system and helps promote a healthy brain.
In fact, a zinc deficiency is associated with increased susceptibility to infections and the development of inflammatory diseases, an October 2017 review in the International Journal of Molecular Science shows.
The average person needs 8 to 11 milligrams of zinc daily, according to the NIH. A three-ounce serving of top sirloin steak alone delivers about 4.89 milligrams of zinc. In addition to red meat, oysters, fortified cereals, poultry and other seafood are rich sources of zinc.
Read more: Which Form of Zinc Is Best?
4. Red Meat Provides B Vitamins
"Red meat provides a host of B vitamins, all of which contribute to critical functions like brain health and energy production," Baker says.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue and constipation, according to the NIH. "Vitamin B12 is especially critical, as it's difficult to obtain from plant-based sources and is essential for cognitive function," Baker says.
Meat and dairy products are excellent sources of vitamin B12 and that animal offal, in particular, contain the largest amounts of vitamin B12, according to a February 2015 review in Nutrition Review.
Red meat also contains niacin (aka vitamin B3), a B vitamin that supports good digestion as well as riboflavin, a B vitamin that promotes healthy skin and eyes and converts food into energy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The Key Is to Enjoy Red Meat in Moderation
Although red meat has many health benefits, it is often high in cholesterol and saturated fat.
When you're eating red meat, be aware of the recommended serving sizes: One three-ounce serving is about the size of the palm of your hand. Limit your intake to three or fewer servings each week.
But not all red meat is created equal. Some meat is processed with specific cooking techniques or chemical additives to preserve flavors. You can reduce your saturated fat intake by choosing lean cuts of meat.
A Helpful Hack for Choosing Lean Cuts of Meat
“There are three keywords to choosing a lean cut of beef: loin, strip, under 10 inches. That means look for cuts that end in ‘loin,’ cuts that start with ‘strip’ and grounds that are no greater than 10 percent fat,” Baker says.
Lean meats and poultry contain less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fats and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams and per labeled serving size, according to the USDA's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.
"Most lean cuts of meat don't have much visible fat, but if you're using a fattier cut, simply trimming any visible fat is very effective. If you're already cooking with a lean cut, you can improve the health of the dish by using a high smoke-point oil that's also heart-healthy, like refined avocado oil," Baker says.
Be sure to limit processed meats, like bacon, deli meats, ham, hot dogs and sausages. Eating processed meat has been associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
A January 2018 study in the International Journal of Cancer, which enlisted more than 61,000 men and women, suggests that those who ate more red and processed meats had greater incidences of cancer, such as breast and colorectal cancers. For this reason, these foods should be eaten rarely, or avoided altogether.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "A Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern With Lean, Unprocessed Red Meat Has Cardiometabolic Benefits for Adults Who Are Overweight or Obese in a Randomized, Crossover, Controlled Feeding Trial"
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA): "Protein"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Preserve Your Muscle Mass"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Preserving Healthy Muscle Mass During Weight Loss"
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: "Protein and Amino Acids"
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Iron"
- International Journal of Molecular Science: "Zinc Signals and Immunity"
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Zinc"
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Vitamin B12"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Vitamin B12 in Meat and Dairy Products"
- The Mayo Clinic: "Niacin"
- USDA: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020"
- International Journal of Cancer: "Red and Processed Meat Intake and Cancer Risk: Results From the Prospective NutriNet‐Santé Cohort Study"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): "Beef, Top Sirloin, Steak"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): "Ground Beef"