Is Red Meat Really That Bad For You?

Here’s what you should know about the health issues linked to eating too much red and processed meat—plus, how to cut back.

Is Red Meat Really That Bad For You?

Whether it’s grilled at neighborhood cookouts, offered at stadium hot dog stands or cooked up for a family dinner, it’s not hard to find red meat on the menu. Still, red and processed meats have long had a poor reputation for their impact on health and longevity.

But are they really that bad?

The link between red meat and chronic illness
While there are notable exceptions, many large, reputable studies and reviews have found that eating too much red or processed meat is tied to higher odds of developing several chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

For example, a 2016 meta-analysis in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that consuming about 3.5 ounces of unprocessed red meat per day was linked to an increased risk of advanced prostate cancer (by 19 percent), colorectal cancer (17 percent), cardiovascular mortality (15 percent), stroke and breast cancer (both 11 percent).

In the same study, eating half that amount, or about 1.75 ounces, of processed meat each day was connected to:

  • Diabetes (32 percent increased risk)
  • Cardiovascular mortality (24 percent)
  • All-cause mortality (22 percent)
  • Cancer: pancreatic (19 percent), colorectal (18 percent), breast (9 percent)
  • Stroke (13 percent)

These findings followed a 2015 World Health Organization report that declared processed meat to be carcinogenic, meaning it’s a proven cause of cancer. The same report found red meat to be probably carcinogenic.

How excess red meat consumption shortens lifespan  
“Typically, what affects longevity, especially in the U.S., is chronic disease,” says Janis Jibrin, MS, RD. “If we can stave off heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and other major killers, then our chances for living a longer and healthier life shoot up.”

One reason mortality risks increase with red meat consumption is that it’s high in saturated fat, upping your risk of heart disease. “Red meat also contains heme iron, which is an oxidant, meaning that in excess it can promote the formation of free radicals in the body,” explains Jibrin. “These destructive molecules promote plaque in arteries and damage DNA, which raises cancer risk.”

What’s more, charring red meat at high temperatures—such as when you grill—can produce harmful carcinogens that appear to raise cancer risks.

Does that mean no red meat—ever?
“Environmental issues aside, I don’t think red meat should be banned entirely from your diet,” says Jibrin. “It’s not clear how risky unprocessed meats like steaks, burgers and plain cooked meats are if eaten in moderation.”

If you’re a big red-meat eater ready to cut back, Jibrin suggests that you do so gradually so that you don’t feel deprived. Here’s how:

Practice moderation. In the absence of a unified recommendation from health authorities, Jibrin recommends erring on the side of caution by limiting unprocessed red meat to 8 ounces per week. The American Institute of Cancer Research’s guidelines are a little more lenient, suggesting no more than 18 ounces of unprocessed meat per week.

In terms of processed meats, nutrition experts advise avoiding these high-sodium, high-fat foods as much as possible. One strategy would be to save the hot dogs, deli meats and bacon as occasional, special treats.

Mix it up with a vegetarian dish. Not all of your burgers have to be meaty. Veggie burgers and other meatless alternatives can be just as hearty and tasty—and a whole lot healthier. If you’re buying them at the supermarket, remember to read nutrition labels. Meatless burgers often have lots of protein and other nutrients but can be high in saturated fat and sodium.

Cut back gradually. Jibrin suggests that if you eat meat nearly every day, try having it just four days a week, adding chicken or fish to the menu instead. Then work your way to three days a week, and so on. Try making burgers with ground turkey, for instance. Jibrin suggests going for the lean turkey (93 percent) instead of extra lean turkey (99 percent), which can be dry.

You can also reduce the amount of meat that you use in a recipe. Instead of all-beef Sloppy Joes, use half the ground beef and sub in beans along with more onions and other vegetables.

Try the Mediterranean diet. A growing body of research stands behind the benefits of this eating plan. The foods associated with it—such as veggies, fruit, whole grains, fish and heart-healthy fats like nuts and olive oil—are all beneficial for cardiovascular health and a longer life.

Medically reviewed in December 2019. Updated in July 2020.

Sources:

A Wolk. “Potential health hazards of eating red meat.” Journal of Internal Medicine. September 2016, 281:2, pp 106-122.
World Health Organization. “Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.” October 26, 2015.
MH Ward, AJ Cross, et al. “Heme iron from meat and risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus and stomach.” European Journal of Cancer Prevention (ECP). March 2012. 21(2), 134–138.
National Cancer Institute. “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk.” Reviewed July 2017.
Crystal Phend. “Red Meat Bad for Heart Failure?” MedPageToday. October 28, 2014.
Charles Bankhead. “Diet and Cancer: Less Red Meat, More Fruit.” MedPageToday. June 10, 2014.
Emily Gelsomin. “Impossible and Beyond: How healthy are these meatless burgers?” Harvard Health Publishing. August 15, 2019.
American Institute for Cancer Research. “Limit Consumption of Red and Processed Meat.”

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