Red meat offers solid nutritional benefits: It's high in quality protein and a good source of B vitamins, iron and zinc. On the other hand, it's high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which are linked to heart disease. 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 three-ounce serving size, that works out to four to six servings of red meat weekly.
However, if you have a family history of heart disease, it's best to speak to a medical professional such as a 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 Harvard Health Publishing. A few examples include hot dogs, bacon, sausage and luncheon 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. Various cuts of beef, veal, pork and lamb contain 55 to 130 milligrams of cholesterol in a three-ounce serving, according to the USDA's reports on beef and veal and pork and lamb. Saturated fat ranges from one to 10 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 (since each gram of fat contains nine calories). To put that into perspective, one three-ounce serving of cooked rib roast alone will provide 10 grams of saturated fat.
1. Eating Less Meat Is Linked to a Decreased Risk of Cancer
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 to well and very well-done was observed to significantly increase the risk of prostate cancer, a study published in the January 2008 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention concluded. Plus, HCAs and PAHs from red meat may also increase the risk of developing colon cancer, an October 2013 study in Nutrition and Cancer found.
However, other research links red meat with breast cancer — regardless of the cooking method. An August 2019 study published in the International Journal of Cancer observed that women who ate the most red meat (regardless of how it was cooked) had a 23-percent higher risk of developing breast cancer compared with women who ate less red meat. On the other hand, women who ate more poultry were observed to have a 15 percent lower risk than those who didn't eat as much chicken.
What's more, the researchers found that women who substituted poultry for meat experienced the most significant breast cancer risk reductions.
2. Eating Less Meat Is Tied to a Lower Heart Disease Risk
A June 2019 study published in the BMJ that looked at the health data of 53,553 women and 27,916 men without heart disease found a link between heart disease and unprocessed red meat. Participants who indulged in more red meat over an eight-year period were more likely to die during the subsequent eight years, the findings suggest. (Note that these findings are correlational rather than causational, so eating red meat doesn't guarantee someone will pass early.)
The researchers discovered that increasing processed meat intake by as little as half a daily serving or more 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. Specifically, just one additional daily serving of processed meat over eight years was linked to a 19-percent higher risk of death from heart disease.
Other research on red meat and heart disease has been less conclusive. A June 2010 meta-analysis published in Circulation found that unprocessed red meat is not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or diabetes. People who ate red meat eight times weekly did not have a higher incidence of either disease than those who ate meat once a week or less. However, processed meats might contribute to both diseases: Every daily serving of processed meat was observed to increase the risk of heart disease by 42 percent and the risk of diabetes by 19 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.
The Bottom Line
With that said, it's best to err on the side of caution and keep your processed meat intake to a bare minimum because processed meats contain more heart-harming preservatives and sodium, according to Harvard Health. 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"