By Brittany Gatson, BDO
Does eating red meat increase the risk of dying from heart disease or cancer? It’s a question that keeps coming up, fueled by research and high-profile campaigns by advocacy groups on both sides of the debate. Following are some answers about disease risk, health benefits, and what role red meat should play in the diet.
1. Does eating red meat increase the risk of cancer and heart disease?
For heart disease, the answer is pretty clear. Some red meats are high in saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. When it comes to cancer, the answer is not so clear. Many researchers say they do raise the risk, especially for colorectal cancer.
A recent study of more than a half-million older Americans concluded that people who ate the most red meat and processed meat over a 10-year-period were likely to die sooner than those who ate smaller amounts. Those who ate about 4 ounces of red meat a day were more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than those who ate the least, about a half-ounce a day. The meat industry contends there is no link between red meat, processed meats, and cancer, and says that lean red meat fits into a heart-healthy diet.
But many studies have found similar links. Another one that followed more than 72,000 women for 18 years found that those who ate a Western-style diet high in red and processed meats, desserts, refined grains, and French fries had an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and death from other causes. The connection between consumption of red and processed meats and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, is very consistent.
2. If eating red meat does increase the risk of cancer, what’s the cause?
That’s not clear, but there are several areas that researchers are studying, including:
• Saturated fat, which has been linked to cancers of the colon and breast as well as to heart disease.
• Carcinogens formed when meat is cooked.
• Heme iron, the type of iron found in meat, may produce compounds that can damage cells, leading to cancer.
3. Are there nutritional benefits from eating red meat?
Red meat is high in iron, something many teenage girls and women in their childbearing years are lacking. The heme iron in red meat is easily absorbed by the body. Red meat also supplies vitamin B12, which helps make DNA and keeps nerve and red blood cells healthy, and zinc, which keeps the immune system working properly. Red meat also provides protein, which helps build bones and muscles.
4. Is pork a red meat or a white meat?
It’s a red meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amount of myoglobin, a protein in meat that holds oxygen in the muscle, determines the color of meat. Pork is considered a red meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish.
5. How much red meat should I eat?
Opinions differ here, too. Most nutritionists suggest focusing on sensible portion sizes and lean red meat cuts, for those who choose to eat it.
Ask yourself these questions:
• Are you taking in more calories than you’re burning off?
• Is red meat crowding out foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains?
Government guidelines suggest 5 to 6 1/2 ounces daily of protein from a variety of sources, including lean meats, nuts, and seafood. So if you’re planning on eating a burger for dinner, it should be a 3-ounce hamburger patty, about the size of a standard fast food burger.
Try to eat no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week. You should avoid all processed meats, such as sausage, deli meats, ham, bacon, hot dogs, and sausages, as research shows an increased risk of colon cancer from consumption.
6. What are some of the leanest cuts of red meat?
For the best red meat cuts, look for those with “loin” in the name: Sirloin tip steak, top sirloin, pork tenderloin, lamb loin chops.
• Beef: Also look for round steaks and roasts, such as eye round and bottom round; chuck shoulder steaks; filet mignon; flank steak; and arm roasts. Choose ground beef labeled at least 95% lean. Frozen burger patties may contain as much as 50% fat; check the nutrition facts box. Some grilling favorites are high in fat: hot dogs, rib eyes, flat iron steaks, and some parts of the brisket (the flat half is considered lean).
• Pork: Lean cuts include loin roasts, loin chops, and bone-in rib chops.