Research shows regularly eating red meat can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. It has also been reported that Blacks have the highest annual total meat consumption.
But is eating a beef burger worse for your health than eating grass-fed or organic red meat?
What is considered red meat?
Red meat is commonly red when raw and has a dark color after it is cooked, in contrast to white meat, which is pale in color before and after cooking. According to the USDA, red meats include all meats from mammals. There is no distinction between cut or age.
Red meats include:
- Beef (burgers included)
- Lamb and mutton
- Pork (including sausages and bacon)
Conventional meat–In order to lower production costs, animals raised conventionally are typically fed low-quality grains and feeds that contain by-product feedstuff. So, what is feedstuff? In simple terms, it can contain unhealthy items, such as distilling industry corn byproducts, fruit rinds, potato waste, and even, yes, candy. In short, as you eat conventionally raised meats, you inadvertently are consuming servings of “feedstuff.” Indeed, an animal’s poor diet can become your poor diet, which will, in turn, impact your health. Most red meat available in major supermarkets is grain-fed.
Grass-fed meat–“Grass-fed” means that, after weaning, an animal’s source of food comes from grass or forage, not from grains such as corn. This does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were used on the animal or what conditions it lived in. This means grass-fed meat tends to have higher levels of unsaturated fats than conventional meat, and is why some research suggests it’s healthier. Grass-fed meat also costs more.
Organic meat–Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (like cows) must have access to pasture. Animals cannot be cloned.
Processed meats–Processed meats can include ham, sausage, bacon, deli meats (such as bologna, smoked turkey and salami), hot dogs, jerky, pepperoni and even sauces made with those products. And that also includes deli meat — whether red (like roast beef) or white (chicken).When meat is processed, it is transformed through curing, fermenting, smoking or salting in order to boost flavor and shelf life.
USDA classification of pork
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), pork is classified as red meat. This means that all scientific and nutritional institutions follow suit and consider pork a red meat.
Though not as red in color as most beef, bison, and lamb, pork is considered red meat because it has more myoglobin than poultry and seafood.
Pigs, like beef, veal, and lamb are also considered livestock, and all livestock is classified as red meat.
What is the nutritional value of red meat?
Red meat is a great source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and other important nutrients. However, it may also be high in saturated fat and sodium, which can have adverse effects on health.
Many people — especially older adults — don’t consume enough high-quality protein. Inadequate protein intake may accelerate age-related muscle wasting, increasing your risk of an adverse condition known as sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass, is a serious health issue among older adults but can be prevented or reversed with strength exercises and increased protein intake. In the context of a healthy lifestyle, regular consumption of beef — or other sources of high-quality protein — may help preserve muscle mass, reducing your risk of sarcopenia.
Wagyu beef (which simply translates to Wa = Japanese and Gyu = cow) has been touted as a healthier alternative to conventional red meat, as it tends to be higher in unsaturated fats. But research is limited, and ultimately it still contains saturated fat.
Processed meats, such as bacon, salami and sausages, contain beneficial nutrients, but they are also high in saturated fat, sodium and contain preservatives.
Is red meat bad & does the type matter?
Red meat tends to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which may contribute to heart disease. It’s also linked to increased cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says there’s “strong evidence” that eating a lot of red meat may increase the risk of colorectal cancer and may also be linked to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. The World Health Organization says red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
And it’s not just the meat but the way it’s prepared that may raise cancer risk. Processed meats, such as hot dogs and cold cuts that are cured, smoked or preserved in other ways, may increase cancer risk. Charring or searing meat, especially over an open flame, may also produce carcinogens.
“Red meat contains a compound [myoglobin] that is processed into compounds in the gut, which may damage the lining of the gut and possibly increase the risk of colorectal cancer,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Care Services at CTCA. “Cooking red meat at high temperatures can also produce other cancer-causing compounds.”
Heart disease and type 2 diabetes
In a review of 37 observational studies, the authors found weak evidence of an association between eating unprocessed red meat and heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
But for processed meat, a recent review showed that for each additional 2 ounces of processed meat consumed per day, the risk of heart disease increased by 26% and the risk of type 2 diabetes increased by 44%, on average.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says there’s “strong evidence” that eating a lot of red meat may increase the risk of colorectal cancer and may also be linked to lung, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. The World Health Organization says red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Dementia and Alzheimer’s
A recent observational study reported that people who consumed large amounts of processed meat had an elevated risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. In terms of meat intake, each additional nearly ounce (approximately a single serving) of processed meat per day was associated with a 44% increased risk for all dementias and a 52% increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
How much red meat should you eat?
- The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research: These organizations have extensive research and recommendations across different types of foods and beverages. Related to red meat, they state, “If you eat red meat, limit consumption to no more than about three portions per week. Three portions is equivalent to about about 12–18 oz cooked weight.”
- For heart health specifically, and to understand the proper amount of red meat in an average American diet, the American Heart Association recommends limiting lean meat to 6 oz total a day.
- Many dietary guidelines around the world now also recommend limiting red meat consumption for environmental reasons. To optimize both human nutrition and planetary health, the EAT-Lancet Commission, consisting of 37 world-leading scientists from 16 countries from various scientific disciplines, recommends consuming less than 4 ounces a week of red meat and very low intakes of processed meat.
So, what’s the final call?
The bottom line is that red meat can still be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet, if not eaten in excess. Where possible, opt for unprocessed or lean cuts, and try to grill less and roast more. Consider swapping red meat for lean chicken or fish occasionally too.
If you are looking for alternatives to meat that are better for your health and the environment, minimally processed plant-based alternatives, such as tofu, beans and lentils, are great options.