It's an age-old debate whether eating red meat is good or bad for you. Nowadays, there seem to be two distinct camps.
In the first camp are paleo fanatics that often consume a source of red meat daily. And in the other camp are vegans, vegetarians, and plant-based proponents that maybe also eat chicken breast and fish.
We can thank the low-fat diet push from the 80s and 90s and the promising grass-fed movement for this dichotomy. So which camp prevails? Like any nutrition recommendation, it depends.
Take a look at the pros and cons of eating red meat to decide if and how red meat can fit into a balanced diet.
A Brief History of Red Meat
Red meat has contributed to the diet and welfare of humans for centuries and still remains a delectable staple and treat for many American families. However, hunted buffalo, elk, and deer of the past that fed our ancestors have been largely replaced by agricultural farming of cattle, pig, sheep, and goat. While this is not inherently bad, as it helped feed plenty more people, it certainly posed implications for sustainable farming, health, and economics.
To make a long and complicated story short, the content and quality of red meat are vastly different than even just 120 years ago. Current farming practices that encourage cows to eat grains instead of grass reduce the nutritional profile of red meat and create more harm to the environment. This typically results in more disease and higher health costs in the long run.
However, the resurgence of more ethical farming practices offers one avenue to continue enjoying red meat guilt-free. Before, though, here is an impressive red meat list:
• Pork (including sausages and bacon)
• Organ meats
• Some luncheon deli meats
Pros of Eating Red Meat
A good source of protein and other micronutrients, beef can absolutely benefit health. This especially serves true for eating high-quality, lean, and unprocessed red meat varieties.
Beef is (micro)nutrient dense.
Nutritionally speaking, red meat is nutrient-dense, offering anywhere from 15-160% of the recommended daily values for 8-10 nutrients. Maybe unsurprisingly, the muscle tissue of various animals like cattle and pork is remarkably similar in terms of nutrition.
Most red meat is high in:
• Riboflavin: energy metabolism
• Niacin: turning food into useable ATP
• Vitamin B6: cofactor for energy metabolism
• Vitamin B12: form red blood cells and DNA
• Iron: oxygen transport
• Phosphorous: bone health
• Zinc: immune health
• Selenium: antioxidant
What’s more, meat typically contains more bioavailable forms of these vitamins and minerals compared to plant foods. For example, although spinach is technically high in iron, it is really not that great of a source because only about half is truly absorbed. Compare this to red meat which contains plenty of iron that is fully absorbable or bioavailable.
Furthermore, one can only obtain B12 from animal foods in general, with red meat containing the most.
Beef is high in protein
Similarly, red meat is considered a valuable source of high-quality protein. Many red meats are considered complete protein sources, meaning they contain 9 essential amino acids that the body cannot make on its own. Recall that amino acids are the building blocks of life.
Moreover, a food is typically considered high protein if it contains at least 15-20 grams of protein per serving. Even after cooking, meat is approximately 25-30% protein by weight and a 3.5 gram serving of beef provides about 27 grams of protein.
Keep in mind that foods many Americans consider high protein like beans, which contain about 7-8 grams of protein per one serving. Plus, no plant food is considered a complete protein.
Thankfully, combining certain foods together, like beans and rice, can create a complete plant-based protein source. Still, those looking to lose substantial amounts of weight or add meaningful amounts of muscle tissue might include some animal meat to hit their protein goals.
Beef increases satiation
In a similar fashion, the high protein content of beef makes it naturally more satiating than plant-based proteins, carbohydrates, and even fat to some extent. Protein is the most thermodynamical macronutrient of the three. Therefore, not only inducing satiation but also requiring the most amount of energy to be digested and absorbed.
Nonetheless, satiation alone can lead to less overall caloric intake, less preoccupation with food, and an easier time maintaining a healthy weight range. This is one major reason why many weight loss programs push a high protein diet and condone eating meat, even red meat quite liberally.
Beef is very versatile in cooking
Few people have time to create lavish meals on a daily basis. Thankfully, red meat is generally a simple and versatile food source.
Grilling, stir-frying, sauteing, roasting, air frying, pressure cooking – the list goes on! Not only this, but nowadays meat comes pre-cut in certain ways, from a filet to ground meat to cut-up stew meat, there is an option for any liking.
Perhaps more important is the many different types of cuts of red meat. Various areas of an animal are leaner or fattier, which then has health implications.
There are eight main cuts of meat known as primal cuts, which are then divided into smaller subprimal cuts before being displayed for sale as portion cuts. It is more important to understand the primal cuts and their significance, including these eight cuts of beef:
• Chuck (ground meat): flavorful, fatty, cheap, and can be cooked however
• Rib: fatty, tender, pricey, and cooked best with a slow-cooker like a smoker
• Loin: leanest, tough, most flavorful, and best cooked on a grill
• Round: lean, tough, inexpensive, and cooking depends on the type of round cut
• Flank (skirt): boneless, flavorful, tough, and moderately price
• Short plate: cheap, tough, and fatty
• Brisket: fatty and tough textured unless cooked perfectly right in a slow cooker
• Shank: toughest, cheapest and best used for stocks
Of all the choices, any cut with the word loin in it is the leanest. If eating red meat often (>3x/week), it is wise to choose these cuts most often. Round and flank cut and chuck cuts that are higher than 90% lean are solid second options and do not add as much cholesterol or saturated fat.
Eating grass-fed beef is likely sustainable
Cultivating grass-fed red meat is a sustainable agricultural practice. The major dilemma surrounding beef and the environment is beef's contribution to fossil fuels.
However, it is rarely mentioned that this is the only major concern when animals consume grains rather than grass. It also cannot be forgotten that current agricultural practices create fossil fuels and harm the environment otherwise, whether they are raising animals or harvesting plant foods.
In addition, grass-fed beef is often more nutritious because the cows are eating what they were intended to eat, thus optimizing their nutrient status. Not enough research gauges the effects of consuming grass-fed meat very often, but it likely does not pose nearly the same risks (or cons) as conventionally raised cattle.
Cons of Eating Red Meat
Does a high meat intake cause heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions? These tend to be the biggest health concerns tied to red meat, and they are addressed in greater detail below.
Beef is higher in saturated fat
It's true, red meat tends to be fattier than white meat like chicken and turkey. While this is not inherently problematic, it is specifically higher in saturated fat, which is associated with raising (bad) LDL cholesterol levels and total cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol levels are associated with raising the risk of heart diseases and complications because cholesterol can cause plaque build-up and harden arteries.
This is one reason the American Heart Association recommends eating red meat two times per week or less. In general, it is recommended to keep saturated fat intake below ten percent of total calories per day.
High consumption of poor-quality beef is associated with colon and other cancers
Many people believe eating too much red meat causes cancer. However, it is more complicated than this. Eating certain types of red meat and cooking red meat in certain ways is associated with a higher risk of cancer, especially colon cancer.
First, cooking red meat at high temperatures, especially if using inflammatory oils, like vegetable or canola, can create cancer-causing compounds. When red meat is cooked at scorching temperatures, fat seeps out and accumulates on the hot cooking surface. This creates toxic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs). Both of these compounds have been deemed cancer-causing in multiple studies.
Secondly, some types of red and processed meat - called cured meats - contain higher levels of nitrates. Nitrates and nitrites are naturally found in some foods (like beets!), but they are also used as artificial ingredients to preserve meat during processing.
Nitrates are generally harmless, but the gut converts nitrates into nitrites, which is linked to a higher risk of cancer. Interestingly, some research shows that nitrate to nitrite conversion also produces some nitric oxide, which can help regulate blood pressure and support heart health.
All in all, a decent amount of research connects high consumption of processed red meats with colorectal cancer as well as cancers of the digestive tract, kidney, bladder, pancreas, prostate, and breast.
Furthermore, observational and experimental studies suggest that eating a lot of red meat directly damages DNA, known as genotoxicity and can cause inflammation in the colon. Thus, try to limit the total consumption of conventionally raised red meat.
Overconsumption of beef may displace another lean protein intake
When consumption of red meat is high, intake of other nutritious and lean protein sources may be lower. And because red meat is associated with more negative health benefits than white meat consumption, it is probably wise to proportionally eat more lean meat sources.
Remember that high protein consumption is helpful for satiation and weight loss. However, consuming less total fat, especially saturated fat, is also associated with more weight loss. Therefore, because red meat is higher in saturated fat, eating more white or lean meat is likely more effective at promoting a long-term healthy weight range.
Beef isn't exactly high in omega-3 fatty acids
Unlike fatty fish and organ meats, and unless grass-fed, red meat is not high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Besides fatty fish, sea veggies, and some nuts and seeds, few foods contain meaningful amounts of omega-3s known for their extreme anti-inflammatory, heart, and brain health properties.
When red meat consumption outweighs fatty fish intake, one likely is not getting enough omega-3s - and this can be problematic for general health. For this reason, proportionally eating more fish than red meat is smart.
Purchasing beef can be expensive
Finally, red meat generally costs more than other popular sources of protein like chicken, turkey, eggs, tofu, beans, and legumes. Whether it costs more because of agricultural practices or because it is a commodity historically reserved for the most wealthy remains a dispute.
Nonetheless, numerous sources purport that reducing total red meat consumption is beneficial for the budget.
The Bottom Line
Red meat, defined by the amount of myoglobin it contains, remains a delicious staple in American diets despite the controversy over the decades.
The controversy tends to revolve around direct negative health effects and environmental impact. Yet, the available research concerning these two factors remains ambiguous, confounded by different variables that negate a neat cause and effect.
The bottom line is that red meat can absolutely fit into a healthful diet, but the amount and quality of the meat definitely matter. Farewell to the beef with beef, because hopefully this article elucidates that for every major con, there is also a viable pro.
Overall, the choice to eat red meat or not is highly individualized based on values, goals, and health status.
Devje S. Is It Healthy to Eat Meat? Healthline. Updated November 25, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/meat-good-or-bad#cancer.
Teicholz N. How Americans Got Red Meat Wrong. The Atlantic. Published June 2, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/how-americans-used-to-eat/371895/.
Zumpano J. Is Red Meat Bad for You? Cleveland Clinic. Published December 22, 2022. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-red-meat-bad-for-you/.