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Myth or Fact: Red Meat is Unhealthy

Apr 8, 2013

Many people enjoy eating red meat but wonder whether it's healthy. Some people think that all red meat is unhealthy while others think that all red meat is nutritious. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Lean red meat can be healthy if consumed in moderation, but people should avoid other red meats due to their associations with heart disease and cancer.

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Historically, the medical community thought red meat was healthy because it's a good source of protein, iron, zinc, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamin B12. Despite these benefits, red meat consumption is associated with higher rates of some cancers and overall mortality rates. But it might actually be the preparation or processing, not the red meat itself, causing these negative correlations.

Red Meat and Fat Content

When most people think of red meat, they think of fatty burgers and steaks. These cuts of red meat are unhealthy because they are high in saturated fat. Saturated fat is a problem because it clogs the arteries which makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. Individuals who consume foods that are high in saturated fat increase their likelihood of developing heart disease. But not all red meat is high in saturated fat, and some studies have shown that consumption of lean red meat doesn't cause a significant increase in cholesterol levels. Most studies focus on red meat itself without controlling for fat content, so it's unclear whether all red meat or just fatty red meat is unhealthy.

Red Meat and Cancer Risks

Certain types of cancers, including colon, breast, stomach and prostate cancer, are more common in individuals who consume large amounts of red meat. It's important to remember, however, that cancer studies group together all types of red meat. Bacon, cold cuts, hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs and other beef products vary in fat content and might not harm the body the same way. Still, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends individuals limit red meat consumption because it contains compounds that might promote cancer. In addition, studies suggest that individuals who consume the most white meat, like chicken and turkey, live longer than those who consume the most red meat. It appears that a significant percentage of those who consume the most red meat die due to cancer or heart disease, which are both associated with red meat consumption.

Processed Red Meat

Studies suggest that processed red meats, like bacon, hot dogs and cold cuts, are particularly unhealthy. Processed meats usually contain preservatives, nitrites and nitrates, which scientists believe to be cancer causing agents. The Harvard School of Public Health found that eating even just one serving of processed meat a day raises your risk of developing heart disease by 42 percent and raises your risk of developing diabetes by 19 percent. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that individuals avoid processed meats because of the cancer risks.

The American Institute of Cancer Research recommends individuals consume no more than 18 oz. of red meat weekly. As with most foods, red meat in moderation probably won't kill you, but it's questionable whether red meat is safe for daily consumption.

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