Studies have found that red meat consumption can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
However, red meat in moderation can be a great source of protein, vitamin B12, and iron.
To minimize the health risks of red meat, you should opt for leaner cuts, eat no more than 3 ounces per day, and try to avoid processed meats.
This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
As of 2019, the average American is estimated to consume five servings of red or processed meat a week, making it a staple in most people’s diets. But, experts warn that eating too much of it can be bad for your health.
Here are the health risks and benefits of eating red meat.
What is red meat?
The key difference between red meats and white meat like chicken and turkey is how much myoglobin is present. Myoglobin is an iron-rich protein that carries and stores oxygen in muscle cells.
Examples of red meat include:
Some processed meats are also considered red meat. Meats that are preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives are labeled as processed. Examples include:
The health risks of eating red meat
Modern research has linked red meat consumption to serious health problems including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Red meat and heart disease
Red meat has higher levels of saturated fat than white meat. Consuming high amounts of saturated fat is linked to heart disease — the leading cause of death in the US.
A small 2019 study funded by the National Institutes of Health noted that red meat contains TMAO, a chemical linked to heart disease. The study found that eating red meat daily tripled levels of TMAO in participants’ bloodstream compared to those who ate just white meat or non-meat sources of protein.
In addition, a 26-year study published in 2010 examined the diets of over 80,000 healthy women. It found that higher intakes of red meat were significantly associated with an elevated risk of coronary heart disease. Conversely, higher intakes of poultry, fish, and nuts were associated with a significantly lower risk.
Red meat and cancer
Red meat may also contribute to cancer. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — an agency under the World Health Organization — classified red meat as “probably” carcinogenic, or cancer-causing.
For example, a 2007 study of approximately 500,000 people between the ages of 50 and 71 found that both red and processed meat intake was positively associated with colorectal and lung cancers. Red meat intake was also associated with an elevated risk of esophagus and liver cancer.
Steven Gundry MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon, says that the link between red meat and cancer may lie in a molecule called Neu5Gc, which is not naturally found in humans.
Gundry says that when humans eat red meat, their immune systems attack the Neu5GC molecule, causing chronic inflammation. Research indicates that chronic inflammation is closely tied to cancer development.
Red meat and diabetes
Studies have found that eating large amounts of red meat also increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A 2011 analysis tracked the diets of almost 450,000 people over 20 years. It found consumption of both unprocessed and processed red meat was positively associated with type 2 diabetes.
The researchers estimated that substituting one serving of nuts, low-fat dairy, or whole grains for a serving of red meat each day lowered the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 16% to 24%.
The health benefits of eating red meat
Red meat isn’t all bad. Depending on the cut, it can have high amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants — which are all important for your health.
Red meat is high in protein. Protein is an essential nutrient that powers chemical reactions throughout the body and is the building block of hair, nails, and muscles. A 3 oz serving of raw ground beef has 14.7 grams of protein while an equal amount of raw ground lamb contains 14.1 grams.
Red meat is a great source of B12, an essential nutrient required for red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. A 3 oz serving of ground, raw beef has about 76% (1.8mcg) of the daily recommended intake of B12, while a 3 oz serving of ground, raw lamb has over 83% (2 mcg).
Iron is a mineral that helps carry oxygen throughout the body. Red meat contains heme iron — the most easily absorbed type of dietary iron. A standard serving of raw, ground beef has almost 1.7mg of iron whereas an equal serving of lamb has about 1.3mg.
How to eat red meat in safer, healthier ways
While consuming large amounts of red meat may cause cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, that doesn’t mean you cannot eat it in moderation. Here are some tips for consuming red meat so that it doesn’t harm your health.
Opt for grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, while beef raised on farm feed is higher in omega-6 fatty acids, which can cause inflammation, says Gundry.
Eat leaner cuts. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends choosing lean cuts of meat and sticking to no more than 3 ounces per day — about the size of a deck of cards. Lean cuts usually have the terms “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package.
Be mindful of cooking methods. Baking, broiling, stewing, and roasting red meat are healthier options than frying, charring, or grilling.
Avoid processed varieties. In a 2010 study, researchers found that eating the equivalent of one hot dog or a couple of slices of bacon or processed deli meats, was associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate unprocessed meat.
Daily consumption of red meat is bad for your health, as it increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. However, that doesn’t mean you have to cut red meat out of your diet entirely. Instead, eating it in moderation, choosing leaner cuts, and buying grass-fed over-processed meat can help you mitigate the health risks.