How Bad is Red Meat?
The news isn’t all terrible for those who love a good steak, but even modest portions bring risk.
Saeed Alshahrani, a doctoral student at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, recently led a study on the health effects of eating even modest amounts of red meat, and it has both of us rethinking our diets.
Alshahrani and his colleagues were aware of many studies connecting red meat consumption to higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other causes. They wanted to look into the risks of eating small amounts. So they turned to a database of information about 96,000 Seventh-day Adventist men and women. Why Adventists? Because about half of them are vegetarians, Alshahrani said, and the rest go light on meat consumption.
Across 11 years, 7,900 of the study subjects had died. Compared to vegetarians, those who ate around 2 ounces of red meat daily — about half a typical hamburger — were 18 percent more likely to die from any cause, and 26 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. The association remained even as other risk factors were taken into account, including smoking, exercise, alcohol use and medical history, the researchers reported March 14 in the journal Nutrients.
“It is important for the public to realize that there is a potential risk of consuming low levels of red meat regardless of their health consciousness,” Alshahrani said via email.
That’s just one study. Let’s look at some others.
The beef with red meat got serious back in 2012 when a large study from the Harvard School of Public Health, involving 121,000 people followed for 24 years on average, found:
- Consumption of one daily serving of unprocessed red meat (a typical small steak or hamburger, for example) was associated with a 13 percent increase of death by any cause.
- One daily serving of processed red meat (such as hot dogs or bacon) was linked to a 20 percent increase in mortality.
The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, controlled for factors like smoking and physical activity. It wasn’t the first to show such associations.
“Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies,” the lead author, An Pan, said at the time.
It’s important to note that studies like these reveal correlations, not causation. Also, they rely on self-reporting of food intake and other habits, and self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate. A few other studies have not found correlations between unprocessed red meat consumption and premature death.
For example, in 2010, a separate group of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health did a meta-analysis of other studies. Their report, published in the journal Circulation, found a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease among those who ate processed meats, but no such correlation among those eating only unprocessed red meat.
“Given how hard it is to study the effect of food on long-term health, there probably won’t ever be a definitive study of red meat and mortality,” Celeste Robb-Nicholson, editor-in-chief of Harvard Women’s Health Watch, said in the wake of those two studies. But she added: “The evidence that’s accumulating has me believing that less meat is probably better for health.”
Update: The following two newer studies were been added to this article after initial publication…
Finnish researchers followed 2,600 men who were 42 to 60 years old at the start of a study, following up with them 20 years later, by which time nearly half had died. Those who reported eating more than 200 grams of meat per day had a 23 percent greater risk of death than the men who ate less than 100 grams per day. Most of the meat eaten by the men in the study was red meat, the researchers reported April 9, 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Another study of people whose diets were higher in high-quality plant proteins such as legumes (including peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans) and nuts, instead of red meat, had lower levels of both total and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). It was published April 8, 2019 in the journal Circulation.
“Asking ‘Is red meat good or bad?’ is useless,” said Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and senior author of the study. “It has to be ‘Compared to what?’ If you replace burgers with cookies or fries, you don’t get healthier. But if you replace red meat with healthy plant protein sources, like nuts and beans, you get a health benefit.”
Why is Beef Bad?
Exactly why red meat, processed or unprocessed, is associated with early mortality isn’t all completely pinned down, but the broad outlines are known, and scientists are gradually filling in the blanks. Red meat, particularly when processed, contains ingredients, which, in other studies, “have been linked to increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer,” Pan and his colleagues said.
Let’s break down some of those bad actors:
Saturated fats, common in all but the leanest beef, drive up cholesterol, which builds fatty deposits in your blood vessels that force the heart to work harder. These deposits can break off and form a clot, causing a heart attack or stroke. There is some controversy surrounding the role of saturated fat in diets, and the Heart Foundation points out that removing it from your diet is not alone a guarantee of better health; it depends on what energy source you replace it with. Poultry and fish have less saturated fat. Meanwhile, the unsaturated fats in fish, particularly salmon, have health benefits.
Processed meats typically contain more saturated fats than raw cuts of beef, plus boatloads of salt.
Salt (sodium) in excess causes the body to retain water and in turn makes the heart and blood vessels work harder, stiffening them and leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
Side note: If you simply can’t give up burgers or ribs but can at least pass on the salami, you’d be taking a big step to lowering your risk of an early demise. I’ve simply stopped buying my beloved salami, and replaced the need for some evening zing by spicing up my homemade salsas and hummus—not with more salt, but with more cayenne pepper, garlic and fresh roasted peppers.
Grilling any meat on high heat — from fish to beef — creates chemicals that increase the risk of cancer, especially if the meat is charred.
Well done meat, regardless of how it was cooked, was linked to a 15 percent higher risk of high blood pressure in one study.
Another recent study adds to the understanding of what’s actually going on inside the body. People who eat a lot of red meat, compared to those who eat lots of white meat or who don’t eat meat, have three times as much of a gut-generated chemical called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which in other research has been linked to heart disease.
“This study shows for the first time what a dramatic effect changing your diet has on levels of TMAO, which is increasingly linked to heart disease,” said Cleveland Clinic researcher Stanley Hazen, senior author of the study. “It suggests that you can lower your heart disease risk by lowering TMAO.”
So What Should You Eat?
If you have no intention of becoming a vegetarian, read on. The health news isn’t all bad for meat lovers.
On the flip side of all the red-meat-is-bad evidence is the significant body of other research that shows significant health benefits in the so-called Mediterranean diet, a varied and balanced culinary lifestyle repeatedly shown to lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and even Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It revolves around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, as well as olive oil and small amounts of cheese and yogurt. Red meat makes only rare appearances on the plate — no more than a few times each month — but fish, poultry and eggs are routine.
If you must get your red-meat fix, consider making it a lean cut. A small study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2018, found that a Mediterranean-style diet led to health benefits for overweight people even if it included some red meat, as long as it was lean.
Here are the leanest cuts of beef roast and steak:
- Eye of round
- Sirloin tip
- Top round
- Bottom round
- Top sirloin
If your making burgers, pick the extra-lean ground beef. But cutting back on beef entirely is still the best idea. Pan and his colleagues in the 2012 study also found that replacing one serving of red meat with a healthier protein lowered mortality risk by the following:
- Fish: 7 percent
- Poultry: 14 percent
- Nuts: 19 percent
- Legumes: 10 percent
In our house, steak burgers have been largely replaced by turkey burgers, and we found that if we make them from scratch, using organic ground turkey, we prefer the taste. We still barbecue strip steaks or filet mignon now and then, but it’s become a monthly treat rather than a weekly ritual. The key to changing the menu at home, for me, is my self-control at the grocery store. I can’t cook what I don’t buy, and I will cook what I do buy.
What About Protein & Other Nutrients?
But until recently, whatever meat our spear-packing predecessors ate was generally far leaner than what we consume today. Much of the beef in restaurants and grocery stores comes from cows raised in factories. Most of today’s beef has more fat than, say, venison or a wooly mammoth, and it is less nutritious than grass-fed beef.
If protein is your concern, there are plenty of substitutes for beef. And while it might be good advice to stick to 2 or 3 ounces in a serving of beef — about the size of a deck of cards — you can safely and smartly eat a lot more nuts, beans or broccoli.
A healthy, balanced diet naturally provides plenty of protein for most people. The USDA recommendations vary by gender and weight. An active 40-year-old man who is 5’-10” and 160 pounds should eat about 58 grams of protein daily, according to the USDA calculator. An active 40-year-old woman who is 5’-5” and 130 pounds should consume about 47 grams.
Red meat does pack high amounts of several important nutrients, including vitamin B12, zinc and, critically, high-quality heme iron, which the body absorbs better than iron from plants or dairy products. Other dark meats can help replace the iron, as can turkey or shellfish, but experts say replacing heme iron can be a challenge for vegetarians.
For meat lovers, the reduced risk of eating poultry or fish instead of red meat is a reminder that not all meats are created equal. Lamb and pork should be considered red meat, too, said Alshahrani, who studied the Adventists.
“I am originally from a culture where meat is consumed [at] higher levels,” Alshahrani told me. “However, red meat that is consumed in [a] Western diet is mainly beef and pork, as compared to the Middle Eastern region, where lamb is the most common red meat consumed. Nevertheless, recent findings on red meat should serve as a new piece of knowledge to help individuals, including myself, make healthy favorable changes on their dietary habits, including a reduction of red-meat intake regardless of the type of red meat.”