How Much Red Meat Should You Eat?

How Much Red Meat Is Too Much?

When you hear “red meat” the first thought that pops in your head is probably beef – whether that’s ground chuck or a NY Strip – but beef isn’t the only red meat out there. Despite popular marketing campaigns, the other white meat, pork, is also a red meat, as is lamb, and “gamey” meats such as deer and even rabbit. It’s clear that not all of these meats are red in color, so what exactly is red meat?

Red meat has to do with myoglobin count (that’s a protein that delivers oxygen to the muscles). Typically, red meat is also higher in saturated fats (not always a bad thing, but we’ll get to that later in the article). And we love red meat, so knowing the benefits, and when & how to prepare red meat to avoid health risks can help keep all the flavor and sizzle in your diet.

What Are the Benefits of Eating Red Meat?

The past several years have seen a resurgence in research on the health benefits of eating high-quality red meat. This has been popularized by personalities like Jordan Peterson and his daughter, Mikhaila, who have credited a diet of high-quality red meat only. There has not been definitive research backing the claims of all-meat or red meat intensive diets, but the conversation (and the data) has shown red meat may not be as bad for your heart or your health as originally thought. 

The first, and most obvious, benefit of eating red meat is the protein. Protein builds and repairs muscle, and most beef will offer you a substantial amount in a single serving. But that’s not all – protein in beef offers a complete amino acid sequence which includes the 9 essential amino acids your body cannot replicate on its own.

In addition to protein, beef provides your body with essential nutrients like B12, zinc, niacin, and iron. B12 is important for neurological health, blood formation, and bone health; zinc is vital for immune function (including wound healing) and turning all that protein you just ate into something your body can use; niacin can also help with neurological function and blood pressure; and iron is essential for red blood cell production (the cells that carry oxygen and nutrients throughout your body).

The key with getting the most nutritional benefit from red meat is the quality of the cut and preparation. If your primary source of red meat comes from processed foods like sausage, bacon, or lunch meats, the nutritional value is diminished on a per ounce basis (less protein) and you will increase your sodium and non-natural nitrates intake (the kind that don’t naturally occur and can create cancer-causing molecules in your body).

RELATED: If you’re thinking ahead to an upcoming dinner or banquet, find out “How to Plan for Alternative Diets at an Event”

What Are the Risks of Eating Red Meat?

Despite the nutritional benefits red meat has to offer, there are several notable health risks associated with red meat consumption. These include Type-2 Diabetes, Heart Disease, and a shortened lifespan. We’ll cover each of these below, and in the next section, we’ll discuss how you can minimize these risks while still enjoying your favorite cut of steak.

Type-2 Diabetes

It is important to remember that red meat does not cause diabetes, but eating too much can increase your risk of developing Type-2 Diabetes (especially processed red meat). In processed red meats, the chemicals (such as nitrates) used as preservatives, can damage your pancreas (including an increased risk of pancreatic cancer).

The pancreas is the organ in your body that produces insulin, which is essential for controlling glucose (sugar) levels in your body. For non-processed meats, saturated fat, cholesterol, and haem-iron are thought to be linked to an increased risk of type-2 diabetes. Type-2 Diabetes is when your body cannot properly regulate glucose in your body and can potentially lead to a heart attack, stroke, neuropathy, and death.

Heart Disease

Saturated fats and sodium have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease for quite some time. There is mounting evidence to suggest that saturated fat is not as bad as we once thought. That evidence is not conclusive and you should still exercise caution when eating foods high in saturated fat. The strongest evidence linking red meat and heart disease, however, is with the processed meats. The chemical additives and preservatives can add a lot of unwanted nutrients to your body.

Another factor is the rate of consumption. Eating too much red meat (50g/day or higher) – processed or unprocessed – leads to an increased risk of coronary artery disease by 9-18%. Your risk increases even further if you already have high levels of LDL (Low Density Lipids) also known as the “bad fat”. High LDL can be increased by consuming too much red meat and can also lead to a heart attack, stroke, and/or coronary heart disease.

Shortened Lifespan

Two long-term studies show that consistent red meat consumption (especially processed meat) shortens your lifespan. Not only can overconsumption lead to endocrine problems, like diabetes, and heart disease, but colorectal cancer – the 5 year survivorship of colorectal cancer is 64.5%. One of the biggest reasons these studies indicate decreased life expectancy is eating too much red meat. As discussed, there are some great reasons to include high-quality red meat in your diet, but overdoing it is clearly detrimental to your health and can increase your morbidity.

It is important that you discuss dietary issues with your doctor, and that you discuss your overall health at least annually. New guidelines suggest that you have an annual colorectal screen after age 45, and your doctor is likely to check a lipid panel to confirm your current cholesterol levels. These can be good indicators for how you want to approach red meat’s role in your diet.

The big thing with red meat and all health risks is like most of your dietary choices: moderation is key! Let’s look at how you can reduce your risk while still enjoying the health benefits of red meat.

How To Reduce Your Risk

There are multiple narratives surrounding red meat. Some swear by its ability to improve health and beat autoimmune disease, others point to overconsumption as the root cause of colorectal cancer, heart disease, and a decreased life expectancy. Like most things, both extremes seem to miss key factors you want to consider.

Including red meat in your diet is still something you can enjoy but taking a mindful approach that limits your intake and focuses on high-quality and unprocessed cuts can help you take advantage of the health benefits affiliated with red meat while minimizing some of the potential problems. Below are some of the best strategies you can employ to keep red meat an enjoyable part of your diet.

Limit Red Meat to One Meal Per Day

There are a variety of recommendations for how much red meat you should eat in a week. Some recommend limiting portion sizes to 3oz. per serving, some say 8oz. per week, and others suggest 18oz. per week. Regardless of which approach you plan on taking, limiting your red meat intake to a single meal per day will probably be a reduction, especially considering the fact that red meats, like pork, have often been considered a white meat, and the processed meat in cold-cuts, hot dogs, and bacon are significantly worse than a high-quality cut of beef. When selecting red meat, look for USDA “Choice” or “Select” cuts, along with grass-fed options. When preparing your beef, trim the fat from your cut (buy lean cuts if you want to save on time).

Opt for Other Protein Sources  

If red meat is your primary source of protein, finding other sources of protein can help boost your health. Some of the best meat alternatives for protein include fish and poultry. Fish are loaded with healthy fats like Omega-3s and lots of other nutrients. Not only does this add protein to your diet but also essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Chicken is a lean protein alternative also chock-full of nutrients.

If you want to look at non-meat alternatives, eggs provide a complete set of amino acids (just like beef) and come with all sorts of other nutrients. Like beef, you don’t want to over consume eggs (stick to 1-2 per day). Nuts, tofu, and low-fat dairy options can round out the best non-meat sources of proteins. Each offers their own health benefits, including high protein, healthy fats, and tons of nutrients your body needs.

Ask Food Servers for Nutritional Information 

You don’t always have the option to hand select and prepare your meal. Maybe you’re at a wedding or another privately catered event and have limited selections from a catering menu. You can always ask the staff or hospitality providers for the nutrition facts of the food being served. If you have the option, you can even call before preselecting your meal option. Once you know what you are getting into, you can enjoy the event with a planned portion of red meat and understand the contents, including cholesterol, saturated fat, and even how the meat is prepared (charred meat is higher in carcinogens).

If you’re simply going out to eat, nutritional facts should be readily available for menu items, or you can always ask your server. Also, don’t be afraid to choose a smaller cut of red meat that is complemented with an alternative protein – you’ll feel full and get to enjoy the full-flavored taste of a steak without having to worry about the impact it will have on your health. Although this adds a step to selecting a meal, this is typically available and easy-to-come-by information – just ask! It’s worth your health to do so.

If you're in Houston or Fort Worth Texas and want to improve the quality of the protein you serve your family, check out one of our fresh meat markets near you