Red meat is rich in quality protein as well as B vitamins, iron and zinc. On the other hand, it's high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which are linked to heart disease.
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So, what's the verdict on red meat — and how often should you really be forking into a marbled steak?
How Often Should You Eat Red Meat?
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends avoiding processed meat and limiting your intake of red meat to 12 to 18 ounces weekly. Based on a 3-ounce serving size, that works out to four to six servings of red meat weekly.
But if you have a family history of heart disease, you might have to eat less red meat. So it's best to speak to a doctor or registered dietitian about a customized meal plan that addresses how you can include red meat in your diet.
What Is Processed Meat?
Any meat that contains preservatives or is preserved by smoking, curing or salting is considered processed meat, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Examples include hot dogs, bacon, sausage and deli meats.
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol in Red Meat
Red meat contains saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, so make sure to limit portions so that the total amount in your diet remains within the recommended daily intakes.
Check the nutrition label on the meat you buy because fat content varies depending on the type and cut of meat. Beef, veal, pork and lamb contain about 22 to 29 percent of your daily value (DV) of cholesterol in a 3-ounce serving, according to the USDA. Saturated fat ranges from 11 to 22 percent DV, or 2.2 to 4.4 grams.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting 5 to 6 percent of calories from saturated fat. So if you're on a 1,500-calorie diet, you should get no more than 10 grams of saturated fat daily (each gram of fat contains nine calories).
When red meat is cooked at high temperatures — such as when you throw it on the grill or pan-fry it — two substances linked to cancer risk are produced: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Eating red meat that was cooked well and very well-done was observed to significantly increase the risk of prostate cancer, per a study of about 23,000 people in the January 2008 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. Plus, HCAs and PAHs from red meat are linked to an increased risk of developing colon cancer, an October 2013 study in Nutrition and Cancer found.
But other research links red meat with breast cancer — regardless of the cooking method. An August 2019 study in the International Journal of Cancer observed that people who ate the most red meat (regardless of how it was cooked) had a 23-percent higher risk of developing breast cancer compared with those who ate less red meat.
On the other hand, those who ate more poultry were observed to have a 15 percent lower risk than those who didn't.
What's more, the researchers found that folks who substituted poultry for meat saw the most significant reductions in breast cancer risk.
2. Eating Less Meat Is Tied to a Lower Heart Disease Risk
A June 2019 study in the BMJ looked at health data of about 80,000 people without heart disease and found a link between heart disease and unprocessed red meat.
Those who ate more red meat over an eight-year period were more likely to die during the subsequent eight years, the study suggests. (Note that these findings are correlational rather than causational, so eating red meat doesn't guarantee someone will pass early.)
The researchers found that eating an extra half serving or more of processed meat every day was associated with a 13-percent higher risk of mortality while upping unprocessed meat intake by the same amount increased mortality risk by 9 percent.
What's more, forking into just two servings of red meat, processed meat or poultry was tied to a 3- to 7-percent higher risk of getting heart disease and a 3-percent higher risk of mortality, per a February 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
And an August 2022 study in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology of nearly 4,000 people found that higher red meat intake is associated with a higher risk of heart disease whereas fish, poultry and eggs weren't.
The Bottom Line
With that said, it's best to keep your processed meat intake to a bare minimum because processed meats contain more heart-harming preservatives and sodium.
And remember to limit your intake of unprocessed red meats to no more than 18 ounces weekly per the American Institute for Cancer Research's recommendations.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: "Beef and Veal Nutrition Facts"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: "Pork and Lamb Nutrition Facts"
- Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention: "Meat and Meat Mutagens and Risk of Prostate Cancer in the Agricultural Health Study"
- Nutrition and Cancer: "Red Meat-Derived Heterocyclic Amines Increase Risk of Colon Cancer: A Population-Based Case-Control Study"
- Circulation: "Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus"
- Harvard Health Publications: "Red Meat: Avoid the Processed Stuff"
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Limit Red and Processed Meat"
- The American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- The BMJ: "Association of Changes in Red Meat Consumption With Total and Cause Specific Mortality Among Us Women and Men: Two Prospective Cohort Studies"
- International Journal of Cancer: "Association Between Meat Consumption and Risk of Breast Cancer: Findings From the Sister Study"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality"
- MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Processed meat and cancer: What you need to know"