As diets like keto and paleo gain popularity, many may be wondering just how healthy it is to regularly eat red meat. But the answer isn’t the same for everyone – protein needs vary from person to person and are highly bio-individual. Even individual protein needs can fluctuate – physical activity, pregnancy, growth (children and teens), and illness or injury all play a role in how much we need.
Red meat can be a simple way to meet protein needs – it’s a great source of iron and vitamin B12. Small to moderate amounts of red meat (which includes beef, pork, lamb, and goat) can be highly nutritious when included as part of a balanced diet.
How much is too much?
A recommended serving size of meat is typically about three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. However, this isn’t often what we’re served, especially at restaurants, where servings can be upwards of eighteen ounces – the maximum weekly recommendation by the American Institute for Cancer Research. For reference, eighteen ounces over the course of a week might include a filet mignon (eight ounces), a typical burger patty (four ounces), and three meatballs (about six ounces).
Although consuming a small to moderate amount of red meat in the diet seems to be safe, research shows large quantities of red meat may increase the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Based on existing research, the International Agency for Research on Cancer also classifies red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Still, there is some conflicting evidence.
If you include red meat in your diet, here are a few ways to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk!
1. Balance your plate.
Consuming large portions of meat means you’re probably going to have less of an appetite for other nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables. This affects overall dietary quality in two major ways: 1) it reduces the amount of fiber in the diet, which has a major impact on gastrointestinal health, and 2) it reduces exposure to beneficial antioxidants found in plant foods known to reduce disease risk. Rather than displacing these foods from your diet, aim to include smaller portions of meat and larger portions of vegetables in your meals.
2. Be aware of cooking methods.
Charred meat can create what are called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – both of which are considered mutagenic and may increase cancer risk. Grilled and barbecued meat can contain these compounds as well. To reduce exposure to HCAs and PAHs, avoid cooking over an open flame and flip the meat frequently to avoid charring.
In addition, meat should always be properly cooked to avoid risk of foodborne illness – steak should have an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit, but ground beef should be cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another great trick to reduce exposure to HCAs is to pair meat with rosemary, which is shown to significantly inhibit their formation.
3. Opt for quality, not quantity.
Meat from animals allowed to roam and graze on grass has a different nutritional profile than animals on grain-centric diets in large-scale confined animal feeding operations. The pastured animals will offer leaner meat and a higher proportion of good fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory.
Grass-fed meat is likely to be slightly more expensive, but it may also be the better option – think of it in terms of quality, not quantity. Animals in stressed, crowded conditions will produce fattier meat with a less desirable nutritional profile. They’re also more likely to be given regular antibiotics.
Still, some may do better with more red meat in the diet than others. What balance works for you? What are your go-to recipes? Share below!