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Eating Red Meat: Once and for All,
Is it Bad for You or Good for You?

Whether or not red meat can be included as part of a healthy diet is one of the most hotly debated topics in the nutrition field. From a purely health-minded perspective (there are those, of course, who choose not to eat meat for ethical reasons) the conventional and naturalist camps are clearly divided.

Should You Limit or Avoid Red Meat in Your Diet?

red meat

According to the American Dietetic Association, lean beef is equal to skinless chicken when it comes to lowering cholesterol.

The mainstream perspective in the United States is that red meat should be a very limited part of a healthy diet. This is primarily based on the fact that it contains saturated fat, which the American Heart Association says is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol.

Meanwhile, studies have linked red meat to a number of chronic diseases, including:

  • Breast cancer

  • Colon cancer

  • Prostate cancer

  • Heart disease

Conventionally speaking, it is because of findings like these that the common healthy diet mantra in the United States sounds something like this:

"The less red meat the better," says Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "At most, it should be eaten only occasionally. And it may be maximally effective not to eat red meat at all."

Red Meat Does Contain Healthy Nutrients

Then there are those who point out that red meat does have some redeeming qualities.

"Meat is the single richest source of iron and zinc and contributes significant amounts of vitamins," says Mary Abbott Hess, a registered dietitian and former president of the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Meanwhile, a three-ounce serving of beef provides 50 percent of the daily recommended protein, along with beneficial B vitamins. And as for all that saturated fat, according to the ADA "more than half the fatty acids in beef are monounsaturated, the same type of fatty acids found in olive oil and championed for their heart-healthy properties. In addition, approximately one-third of the saturated fat in beef is stearic acid, which is shown to have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol."

red meat

Grilling red meat can lead to the formation of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines.

The ADA advises that Americans can eat six ounces of lean red meat five or more days a week and still be eating a diet that could decrease cholesterol levels. Surprisingly, they say lean beef is just as effective as skinless chicken when it comes to lowering cholesterol.

If You Eat Red Meat, What Kind is Best?

There are those in the natural health field who oppose red meat for ethical reasons, and there are those who are fans of red meat ... as long as it comes from quality sources.

Conventional meat is typically raised on corporate factory farms that are inhumane to animals and unhealthy for you. Animals raised in mass factory farms are pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and other drugs (about 70 percent of all antibiotics and similar drugs produced in the United States are given to livestock and poultry), while being fed an unhealthy mix of pesticide-laden grains.

If you are not familiar with factory-farming practices and what that means for the food you feed your family, The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America's Food Supply, is a highly recommended book on the topic. It's a quick read, and one that can help lead to a positive transformation in both a big-picture and personal sense.

When it comes to red meat, choosing sources that have been raised in humane, natural ways --- which means being raised on pasture, or grass-fed -- is the healthier choice, according to many experts. Grass-fed beef has been found to contain less fat and more omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other beneficial compounds compared to grain-fed beef.

What About Cooking and Processing?

Adding to the complexity, the way red meat is cooked and processed can also impact its nutritional value. Processed meats are known to be among the worst way to consume red meats because they contain a number of additives, one being sodium nitrite, a preservative that's been linked to cancer.

Cooking red meat at high temperatures, such as frying, searing, grilling or broiling, is also problematic. It's known to produce heterocyclic amines, chemicals that may cause cancer.

Add up all of the above and you're left with a personal decision that only you can make. While some say you're better off avoiding red meat entirely, others point out its beneficial nutrients, particularly when it comes from a healthy, humanely raised grass-fed animal.

Recommended Reading

What is REALLY in a Hot Dog? And How Unhealthy Are They?

The Number of Approved Meat Additives Expanded by the FDA -- and None of the Additives Need to be on the Label


Archives of Internal Medicine 2006;166:2253-2259

American Dietetic Association

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