If you’re someone who can truly appreciate a juicy steak or a rack of lamb, you might find yourself wondering about the pros and cons of regularly including red meat in your diet. Reports on the nutritional value of red meat are often mixed, with some sources claiming red meat has a rightful place in the average American diet while others frame red meat as a dangerous food that should be avoided at all costs.
In 2015, the World Health Organization released a study showing a link between red meat and increased cancer risk—an announcement that made major headlines in the United States, where red meat is consumed at three times the global average. Before disavowing your love of red meat, though, it’s important to examine the potential benefits and drawbacks of including it in your diet, as well as the guidelines for how much and how often red meat should be eaten.
What exactly counts as red meat?
What counts as red meat isn’t as straightforward as one might think. In general, the label “red meat” refers to meat that comes from four-legged livestock including beef, pork, veal, goat, bison, and venison. However, from a culinary perspective duck and goose are often thought of as red meat while pork and veal are considered white meat.
Pork, in particular, is ubiquitously thought of as white meat thanks to the long-running “Pork. The Other White Meat” ad campaign commissioned by the National Pork Board. Food scientists, on the other hand, are more likely to use myoglobin levels to determine whether a meat is considered red or white.
What the heck is myoglobin?
Myoglobin is a type of protein found in animals (including humans!). Myoglobin works by storing oxygen, which is then used to help fuel muscle movement. Depending on the type of animal and how often their muscles are utilized, myoglobin concentrations determine the color of their muscle tissue.
For example, a cow that stands all day and has plenty of room to move around will have a high myoglobin concentration compared to a cow that has little room to move around. Today’s lean white pork is partly a result of pigs not having any room to move around, which results in low myoglobin concentrations in their tissues.
Myoglobin concentrations are also the reason why some wild or very active birds such as duck, goose, ostrich, and emu are so dark in color and are considered red meat by food scientists as well as those in the culinary community.
A Great Source of Iron
Iron is an essential mineral responsible for transporting oxygen throughout your body. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the recommended daily iron intake for menstruating women ages 19 to 50 is 18 milligrams. Pregnant women in the same age bracket need 27 milligrams of iron per day, whereas breastfeeding women only require 9 milligrams of iron daily.
If you follow a vegetarian diet or vegan diet, it is recommended that you consume double the recommended amount of iron per day. This increased need is due to the fact that plant-based iron sources (also known as non-heme iron) aren’t as easily absorbed by our bodies as iron from animal sources.
Ben Sit, a registered dietician who specializes in sports nutrition, recognizes red meat’s role in protein and iron absorption and says that it “can be an easier way to meet protein needs without as much planning since [red meat] protein sources are typically easier absorbed than vegetable proteins. This is because the vegetable protein does not have a heme group attached to the protein, which impairs its absorption. Pairing animal protein sources together with vegetable protein sources will help increase the absorption of the non-heme proteins.”
Red meat provides both a small amount of non-heme iron as well as large quantities of heme iron, which our bodies can absorb very efficiently, which is why those eating a plant-based diet should aim to increase their non-heme iron intake.
Which Meat to Eat for Maximum Iron Intake
Beef, pork, lamb, venison, and moose can contain anywhere from 0.3 to 3.8 milligrams of iron per 2½ ounce serving, giving you plenty of options the next time you’re considering foods with high levels of easily absorbable iron. Offal fans will be happy to learn that 2½ ounces of pork liver contains 13.4 milligrams of iron per serving with liver and kidney from lamb, beef, and veal following closely behind.
The Zinc Link
The recommended daily intake of zinc for women ages 19 years and older is 8 milligrams. This increases to 11 milligrams per day for pregnant women and 12 milligrams daily for those who are breastfeeding. Red meat is an excellent source of zinc, a naturally-occurring mineral needed by our bodies for a variety of functions.
Zinc is necessary for regulating immune response and, in fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that individuals with inadequate zinc intake were more likely to fall ill than those with adequate levels. Zinc intake also plays an important role when treating the common cold, preventing retina and vision damage, and healing wounds by decreasing inflammation and bacterial growth.
The Best Red-Meat Sources of Zinc
According to data published by the Dietitians of Canada, a single 2½ ounce serving of beef, veal, pork, lamb, and game meat such as venison or bison can contain anywhere from 2.0 to 8.6 milligrams of zinc. Once again, offal leads the pack in terms of nutrient concentration: 2½ ounces of veal liver contains an impressive 8.4 to 8.9 milligrams of zinc—an entire day’s worth for most women.
Vitamin B12: A Crucial Nutrient
Vitamin B12, another vitamin essential to human health, is only naturally-occurring in animal products, making red meat an efficient means of getting enough of this important nutrient in your diet. Vitamin B12 plays a major role in brain development and functioning, the formation of DNA, nervous system operation, heart disease prevention, blood clotting, and the management of schizophrenia, depression, multiple sclerosis, degenerative eye disease, and many other functions indicative of overall health. The NIH guidelines recommend women ages 14 years and older consume 2.4 micrograms of B12 daily, 2.6 micrograms daily while pregnant, and 2.8 micrograms daily while breastfeeding.
Vitamin B12 is so imperative for our wellbeing that an intake limit has yet to be established by medical professionals.
Vitamin B12 and Red Meat
Red meat is chock-full of vitamin B12, so including even a very small amount of red meat in your diet will keep you well above the recommended daily intake. A 2½ ounce serving of beef or pork can contain anywhere from 0.5 to 2.7 micrograms of vitamin B12, while organ meats (specifically lamb, beef, or veal) boast as much as 66 micrograms per 2 ½ ounce serving.
So how much red meat should you be eating?
Even in light of the benefits of red meat, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week, including favorites such as steak, hamburgers, roasts, and pork chops. This amount is based on mounting evidence that regular consumption of red meat is linked to colorectal cancer. Based on this recommendation, it’s important to take a look at the potential ill effects that can arise from including red meat in your diet.
A Note on Saturated Fat
Red meat can be high in saturated fats, a nutrient the American Heart Association recommends you consume in quantities of no more than 13 grams per day. Saturated fats have been vilified up until recently and have historically been linked to raising LDL cholesterol levels and causing heart disease. While many dietitians and medical professionals still err on the side of caution when it comes to saturated fats, scientists are discovering that we may be wrong about our stance on saturated fat.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, concluded that a diet high in saturated fat actually lowered the levels of LDL cholesterol in some participants. While this theory is promising, the study will have to be replicated many times and with a larger group of people before it gains merit in the healthcare community.
Red Meat and Cancer: A Strong Correlation
A longitudinal study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 examined 37,000 men and 83,000 women for 30 years, monitoring participants through self-reporting every four years on topics including red meat consumption, weight, whether they smoked at the time, and how physically active they were in hopes of shedding more light on red meat and its link to early mortality.
Of the 24,000 participants who died over the course of the study, 9,500 deaths were attributable to cancer. The final report concluded that increasing red meat consumption by even a single serving each week resulted in a 13 percent increase in risk of mortality. Further studies have shown a strong link between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer, with results showing mortality rates increased by 20 to 30 percent in meat eaters.
Red Meat and Heart Disease: A Weaker Link Than You’d Think
Heart disease has long been associated with red meat consumption although evidence to support this link isn’t as strong as you might expect. An article published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports examined current information on the topic, revealing only a slight increase in the risk of coronary artery disease in those who regularly consume red meat.
Another separate review of available data on cholesterol levels and blood pressure in relation to red meat consumption published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also demonstrated a lack of evidence linking red meat consumption to increased risk of heart disease. Specifically, it was found that “consuming more than half a serving per day of red meat, which is equivalent to a 3-ounce serving three times per week, did not worsen blood pressure and blood total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglyceride concentrations, which are commonly screened by health-care providers.”
Animal Welfare and Nutrition Density in Red Meat
Factory farming in the United States is not only detrimental in terms of its effects on animal welfare and the environment; it can actually have a negative impact on the overall nutritional quality of the meat we consume. Red meat sourced from factory-farmed livestock has been shown to contain higher levels of saturated fat, largely due to the fact that the animals aren’t given room to move around and develop their muscles.
Finding the Best Red Meat (for Your Body and Your Budget)
If at all possible, shop for red meat at a local butcher with high product turnover and a trusted reputation. Since not everyone has access to this luxury, most people find themselves buying red meat from the grocery store. If possible, buy small amounts of organic or free-range animals that have been both grass fed and grass finished (the latter can be difficult to find).
While some cuts of meat are best with plenty of marbling (such as ribeye steaks, lamb chops, and pork shoulder), other cuts of red meat are best when very lean (including tenderloin, flank steak, and brisket). Leaner cuts of meat usually benefit from a low-and-slow cooking method and should be sliced against the grain to further tenderize the meat. Look for red meat that is a bright red or pink and is uniform in color as uneven color can be a sign that the meat is past its prime.
Finding a Place for Red Meat in Your Diet
The good news is that if you enjoy eating red meat, there’s definitely room for you to include it in your diet. If you enjoy red meat in large amounts and with greater frequency, you now have the tools to make informed choices, opting for leaner cuts in smaller amounts. Choosing good-quality, smaller cuts of lean red meat whenever possible will allow you to enjoy it throughout the week without feeling deprived.