Grocery case illustration with meat and other foods

—Fabian, Ventura, California

As a dietitian, I often field questions asking whether certain foods are “good” or “bad.” I’m going to challenge you to move beyond these labels because eating is complex, and so is food.

Nutritionally, meat is a great source of protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. When people express health concerns about eating meat, they usually mean “red” meat (i.e., any animal besides seafood, poultry, or game birds—this includes beef, pork, lamb, goat, and bison). Products like sausage, salami, and bacon are referred to as processed red meat that has been cured, salted, or smoked.

The research is a little mixed on how red meat can affect you. Based on the science, you can make your own informed decision about whether you want to cut out red meat:

Meat may affect heart health—but we’re unsure

Most of the fat in red meat is saturated fat, the kind long believed to raise LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and contribute to deaths from heart disease. However, study results are mixed on this.

Two studies published in 2016 looked at whether replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat from plant oils reduced cholesterol and mortality. In one study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Harvard researchers found that this substitution was associated with lower cholesterol and lower risk of death from heart disease. The other study, published in the BMJ, found no association with mortality despite lower cholesterol levels. So with respect to its fat content, the connection between red meat and heart health is still unclear.

What about cancer?

Red meat is one source of heme iron, which is the form of iron most easily absorbed and used by our bodies. Heme iron has many benefits, but it does play a role in the formation of certain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals. High-temperature cooking like grilling and frying can increase production of these compounds. Processing meat by adding nitrates or smoking does too—even more so, in fact.

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on red meat where researchers analyzed 800 studies looking at the relationship between meat consumption and cancer. While they found sufficient evidence that processed red meat is carcinogenic, they only found limited evidence that non-processed red meat is carcinogenic.

This sounds scary, but it’s also important to keep in mind the level of risk compared to other health behaviors. WHO reported that people who eat one hot dog’s worth of processed meat per day have an estimated 18 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. By comparison, smokers are 15–30 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers, a 1,500–3,000 percent increased risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, some unhealthy habits, such as smoking, have a much greater impact on cancer risk than eating meat.

What this means for how you eat

Most experts agree that you don’t have to eliminate red meat in order to eat healthfully. You can honor both your body and your preferences. Here’s how you can do that:

Try alternative proteins.

If you’re a real carnivore, consider challenging yourself to experiment with other types of protein at least a few times per week. For example, try a black bean or salmon burger instead of ground beef. Get curious and branch out!

Revisit how you think of processed meats.

Bacon, cold cuts, jerky, and other processed meats can be “fun foods” to enjoy on occasion. Try thinking of them more like flavorful condiments that enhance a dish rather than the main attraction. For example, toss a bit of crisped bacon into sautéed green beans, and you might find yourself reaching for green beans a little more often.

Add more healthy food to your diet.

Complement your protein choices with whole grains and colorful fruits and vegetables. Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are especially rich in cancer-fighting nutrients.

Think about the big picture.

What you eat is very important to your overall health. However, other lifestyle behaviors, like avoiding smoking and staying active, are equally important.

Article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). What are the risk factors from lung cancer? Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/risk_factors.htm

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2015). WHO report says eating processed meat is carcinogenic: Understanding the findings. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2015/11/03/report-says-eating-processed-meat-is-carcinogenic-understanding-the-findings/

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2016). Higher consumption of saturated fats linked with lower mortality. [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/higher-consumption-of-unsaturated-fats-linked-with-lower-mortality/

Ramsden, C. E., Zamora, D., Maichrzak-Hong, S., Faurot, K. R., et al. (2016). Re-evaluation of the traditional diet-heart hypothesis: Analysis of recovered data from Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968–1973). BMJ, 353. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i1246

World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2015). Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, 114. Retrieved from https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114.pdf