Sizzling steaks and juicy burgers are staples in many people’s diets. But research has shown that regularly eating red meat and processed meat can raise the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, especially colorectal cancer.
A well-known study by the Harvard School of Public Health looked at the health effects of regular meat intake and found links to heart disease and cancer.
- One daily serving of unprocessed red meat — about the size of a deck of cards — was associated with a 13% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer.
- One daily serving of processed red meat — one hot dog or two slices of bacon — was associated with a 20% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer.
“It’s okay to eat meat but limit the amount and choose healthier types to reduce the risk of heart disease. Eating too much red meat comes with health risks and is not part of a healthy diet,” says Stephen Hu, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Red meat is high in cholesterol, saturated fats and sodium. It should be eaten in a limited fashion.”
Dr. Hu recommends people who are at risk of heart failure or stroke to really limit eating red meat. “People with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a family history of cardiovascular disease should try to eliminate most, if not all red meat.”
The American Heart Association recommends a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts and limits processed red meat and sugary drinks. According to a recent study, even partially replacing red meat with plant-based sources of protein can reduce the rate of heart disease in the United States.
For people who want red meat in their diet, 6- to 8-ounce portions, once or twice per week is recommended. “Don’t be fooled by ‘the other white meat’. Pork is also classified as a red meat for dietary purposes,” Dr. Hu says.
The cut of meat is also very important. Dr. Hu recommends unprocessed, lean cuts of meats that are hormone-free, organic or free-range. Look for cuts that say “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package.
“Processed meats are high in nitrates and sodium, and you do not really know which part of the animal you are eating.”
When cooking meat, avoid burning it.
“Cooking red meat, or even poultry and fish at high temperatures can generate hydrocarbons that are carcinogenic and have been linked to stomach cancer,” says Dr. Hu. “This type of cooking often occurs when steaks are grilled over high heat to get a ‘black char’ look and taste. It is healthier to grill over medium or indirect heat.”
Dr. Hu recommends cooking meats via sous vide to avoid burning. In this cooking method, the meat is placed in an airtight plastic bag or container and cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature.
People who eat meat daily may find it hard to change their diets. Studies suggest that it's wise to consider the health benefits of cutting back. This applies to children as well.
“Just like adults, children do not need to eat high amounts of red meat. They can get all their nourishment via healthier alternatives, such as chicken, fish and legumes,” says Dr. Hu. “Having children eat red meat in moderation helps them develop healthy eating habits that will stick with them throughout their lives.”