Is Red Meat Really That Unhealthy?

Fewer people are eating red meat in recent decades. While it is a good source of many essential nutrients, red meat is also high in fats and cholesterol. The link between consumption of red meat and various diseases has caused the public to turn away from beef and toward other alternatives such as chicken, fish or a vegetarian diet.

Nutrients and Downsides

Red meat is rich in protein, iron, magnesium, selenium, phosphorous and vitamin B-12. A 6-ounce steak contains 38 grams of protein, which is the good news. The bad news is that it also provides 44 grams of fat. Of those fat grams, 16 are saturated fat. In addition to its high fat and cholesterol content, red meat is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and higher risks of numerous cancers, including colon and breast cancer.

Red Meat Research

One Harvard study found that younger women who regularly consumed red meat had a greater risk for a common form of breast cancer. The more red meat the young women consumed between young adulthood and mid-life, the greater the chance of developing hormone-driven breast cancer in the next decade of their lives. Those who ate large amounts of red meat had double the risk compared to infrequent meat eaters.

Red Meat and Carcinogens

How you cook red meat is also a big factor. There is increasing evidence that grilling, smoking and barbecuing meat makes it carcinogenic. Also, cooking red meat at high temperatures such as frying it in a pan introduces the presence of carcinogens. In contrast, cooking chicken and fish using these methods does not lead to a high degree of carcinogens.

However, studies of red meat and their link to diseases cannot be conducted in a vacuum. The other aspects of a person’s life need to be taken into consideration. It is possible that individuals who eat large amounts of beef, lamb or pork do not eat enough healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables. Other lifestyle factors such as smoking or lack of exercise also contribute to various diseases, and need to be examined in conjunction with meat eating habits.


Government recommendations as they relate to red meat are to eat beef, lamb and pork in small amounts. Choosing leaner cuts of meat and trimming off all visible fat are suggested. Meats that contain lower amounts of fat include extra lean ground beef, beef round steak, tenderloin, sirloin tip, flank steak and pork tenderloin.

Portion size is critical and worthy of attention. Some people eat large steaks without realizing that they are consuming excessive amounts of cholesterol and fat all in one sitting. Recommended portion sizes include three ounces of meat. This is about the size of a deck of cards.

The answer to whether or not red meat is healthy or unhealthy is clearly not a straightforward one. While red meat does offer essential nutrients, it also comes with high fat and cholesterol. Choosing leaner cuts and exercising portion control will help to limit health risks. Paying close attention to how you are cooking the meat and avoiding high temperatures is also critical for avoiding carcinogenic substances.


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