Many people view red meat as a guilty pleasure, and expert groups, including the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, advise us to cut back. Some research suggests eating a lot of red meat may increase risk of premature death, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers, especially colorectal cancer.
At the same time, red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, is nutrient-rich, offering protein, iron, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12.
Each daily serving of processed meat, such as bacon, hot dogs or salami, is associated with a 15-percent higher risk of death from heart disease and an 8-percent increased risk of cancer-related death, according to a July 2015 Public Health Nutrition analysis of nine observational studies.
“These findings are not trivial, especially in America, where many people eat two or three servings of red meat every day,” says Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and one of the study’s authors.
However, as Hu and other experts have noted, such observational studies can’t prove cause and effect.
“People who eat the most red and processed meats also tend to weigh more, smoke more cigarettes, exercise the least and eat fewer fruits and vegetables,” says David Klurfeld, Ph.D., national program leader for human nutrition at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Maryland.
Observational studies of red meat intake also overlook potential benefits of grass-fed red meat since the majority of red meat eaten is from feedlot-raised, grain-fed animals.
Health risks of red meat also depend on how it’s processed and cooked. “Cooking meat at high temperatures, such as pan frying, deep-fat frying, oven broiling and grilling, leads to formation of carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs),” says Mariana Stern, Ph.D., a cancer epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. HCAs are less likely to form in lower-temperature cooking, such as baking, steaming and boiling.Grilling meat also generates carcinogens, especially in charred portions.
“If meat is very fatty, more carcinogens will be formed than if meat is leaner.” says Mariana Stern, Ph.D., a cancer epidemiologist. “So, choose leaner cuts, which are often signaled by the words “loin” or “round.”