Is Red Meat Good or Bad for Your Health?

For many years it has been speculated that red meat could be bad for your health if consumed regularly. Now, we're going to tell you what the scientific evidence says about it.
Is Red Meat Good or Bad for Your Health?
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 13 February, 2023

Red meat is one of the foods that creates the most disagreements among the scientific community. Opinions differ about its effects on the body. However, the latest evidence seems to give a clear answer, especially if certain considerations are taken into account that we will comment on below.

The first thing to be clear about is that one of the bases of a healthy diet is variety. The greater the spectrum of food consumed, the lower the risk of developing a deficit of essential nutrients that would put the proper functioning of the body at risk. Likewise, it’s key to maintain a balance regarding calories.

Nutritional value of red meat

Before commenting on whether the consumption of red meat is good or bad for your health, we need to review the general nutritional characteristics of this kind of food. Although it’s true that there are differences between each cut, the truth is that red meat stands out for its high protein content.

In all cases, they are nutrients of high biological value, which is why they have all the essential amino acids. They also score well for digestibility. It should be noted that meeting the protein requirements is decisive in order to prevent pathologies related to lean mass, as stated in a study published in BioMed Research International.

On the other hand, red meat provides a large number of essential minerals, such as iron, zinc and selenium. All of them fulfill important functions within the body. For example, iron has been shown to be necessary to ensure proper oxygen transport through the blood.

Regarding the lipid profile, it should be noted that there are variations regarding the type of meat and the feeding method of the animal it comes from. In this sense, the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids will increase if the livestock is organic and pastures are offered to the cattle. If the fattening method is through feed consumption, then the lipid content will be altered.

Does red meat cause cancer?

Processed red meat contains a lot of nitrites.
Much has been said about the influence of diet on the appearance of various types of cancer of the digestive system, especially in relation to the consumption of red meat.

In recent years it has been claimed that regular consumption of red meat can cause cancer. However, this hypothesis has not been corroborated by scientific literature. Most of the studies carried out put processed red meat and fresh red meat in the same bag, which can be misleading. It’s important to differentiate.

When we talk about processed meats, we’re referring to products that have low-quality additives, such as nitrites. These are harmful to health in the medium term, as they can increase the risk of developing some types of cancer that are related to the digestive tract. This is evidenced by an investigation published in the journal Epidemiology.

However, fresh meat doesn’t contain these elements, so it isn’t possible to make such an association. In fact, the few investigations that study the consumption of fresh red meat and its relationship with cancer fail to find any solid evidence.

We could even highlight that certain trials and reviews that treat processed and fresh red meat as similar products are not even able to establish a correlation between the intake of both foods and the risk of developing cancer. For this reason, it cannot be said that the fresh version is dangerous to health, although the processed version may be, due to the presence of additives.

Another great article for you: The Risks of Ochratoxin A in Food

Can red meat shorten life?

As we have seen, there doesn’t appear to be an association between regular red meat intake and the risk of developing cancer. And even less so when it comes to fresh, high-quality, organic, grass-fed beef. Neither has evidence been found that the appearance of this kind of meat in the diet causes other health problems.

Gone is the myth that a high protein diet can cause kidney or liver damage in the medium term. Moreover, it’s currently proposed we need to increase our intake of these nutrients to achieve better muscle function and to avoid involuntary losses of lean mass during old age. Under this scenario, the proper functioning of the body would be seriously affected.

Nor is there sufficient evidence to confirm that red meat may contain antibiotics or other toxic elements that may affect health. In any case, to limit this risk, you only need to opt for organic or bio varieties, as in these cases the sanitary controls are much more intense, which ensures the healthiness of the meat in question.

Likewise, scientific literature shows evidence that the regular consumption of red meat doesn’t increase cardiovascular risk, while the intake of processed meat could. An example would be an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. However, the evidence is limited in this regard.

On the other hand, we should take into account that certain pieces considered fresh red meat have high quality and nutritional density. An example could be veal liver, a food that provides iron and vitamin A in significant quantities. Both nutrients can help prevent the development of many complex pathologies. In addition, we are talking about a fairly inexpensive food.

How much red meat should be included in the diet?

Despite what has been said, we need to emphasize that it’s a good dietary strategy to prioritize the presence of fish over meat in our weekly meals. The latter could appear 2 or 3 times a week, in its fresh version. It should also be alternated with white meat, which is much less caloric and contains high-quality proteins.

Of course, it’s essential to apply good cooking methods when preparing these foods. Fried foods or batters can cause waste substances that are toxic in the medium term, such as acrylamide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. For this reason, it’s always best to choose the grill, the oven, or boiling.

You’ll also have to be careful with barbecues and smoked foods. It isn’t recommended for these cooking methods to be practiced on a regular basis. Smoke contains a number of toxic compounds. In turn, coals raise the temperature of the food too much, which could favor the development of nitrosamines and other compounds that cause damage in the medium term.

In addition, you should avoid using sauces to accompany it. The reason isn’t that they contain elements that are harmful to health, but rather that they increase caloric content. It’s essential to achieve a balance at a dietary level to prevent weight gain that could negatively affect the body’s functioning.

In the case of dressings, it’s always recommended to prepare it at home. Industrial versions usually contain simple sugars, as well as low-quality additives. The less both items appear in your diet, the better. In this way, you’ll be able to maintain a good state of health in the medium term.

What exactly are processed red meats?

As you have seen, what you need to avoid is processed red meat. This has harmful additives in the medium term. The less you eat of it the better. We need to be very clear about what type of food belongs to this group, in order to consume them less often. It’s fine to include them occasionally, but they should never be eaten on a daily basis.

Processed red meat refers to all sausages that contain nitrites or that have an extensive industrial process. Examples would be chorizo, mortadella, and salami. However, there are exceptions. Good quality serrano ham, turkey breast, and cooked ham can all be used more frequently, as long as the quality of the product is checked by reading the label.

Likewise, precooked dishes or those belonging to the group of fast food made with red meat are usually also included in this group. Making a homemade hamburger with minced meat isn’t the same as consuming this dish in a low-quality restaurant chain.

Another great article: 6 Foods that Can Affect Your Thyroid

Is white meat better than red?

Red meat and white meat can be combined in the diet.
Although it may seem healthier to consume white meat, in reality the ideal thing is to achieve a dietary balance between natural and healthy products.

Another typical question has to do with whether white meat is a better option for the diet than red meat. The answer is a resounding no. At a health level, it doesn’t have superior quality. Both are necessary foods to ensure the proper functioning of the body. The best thing is to combine them in the diet so that they appear regularly.

However, it’s necessary to emphasize that, under certain contexts, the presence of white meat can be prioritized over red meat. We’re talking about people who want to lose weight, as, in this case, the calories can be a determining factor. Regarding red meat, we should prioritize lean pieces in order to be able to maximize the protein intake without excessively increasing the calories in the diet.

However, as we mentioned before, it’s always advisable to increase our consumption of seafood and fish. These also contain proteins of high biological value. In addition, they contain certain nutrients, such as iodine, which are very important to guarantee hormonal balance within the body. This prevents chronic pathologies, such as those related to the thyroid.

Red meat is not bad for your health

There’s no scientific evidence to prove that the consumption of red meat is bad for your health. As long as we’re talking about fresh red meat, of course. In this case, the risk of developing cancer or cardiovascular diseases won’t be increased. Of course, it should always be included in the context of a varied and balanced diet.

Furthermore, you should combine an adequate diet with other good health habits to ensure optimal health conditions. Practice physical exercise on a regular basis, especially strength work. Getting a good night’s sleep is also vital, as this ensures the body’s recovery processes function correctly.

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