Can Red Meat be Part of a Healthy Diet?

MD Magazine®, Volume 3 Issue 1, Volume 3, Issue 1

Over the past four decades, red meat has gotten a bad rap. Consumption of beef, pork, and lamb has been linked with poor cholesterol scores and increased risk of breast, colon, and rectal cancers as well as diabetes and a host of other chronic diseases. The conventional wisdom has, however, lumped all red meats into a single group and arrived at a blanket judgment that eating any red meat is equally harmful.

By Timothy S. Harlan, MD (aka Dr. Gourmet)

Over the past four decades, red meat has gotten a bad rap. Consumption of beef, pork, and lamb has been linked with poor cholesterol scores and increased risk of breast, colon, and rectal cancers as well as diabetes and a host of other chronic diseases. The conventional wisdom has, however, lumped all red meats into a single group and arrived at a blanket judgment that eating any red meat is equally harmful.

Fortunately, in recent years, researchers have begun to distinguish among the various red meats in an effort to determine whether some are healthier than others. This work has yielded results indicating that processed red meats, such as bacon, salami, and hot dogs, seem to be more closely linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes than lean, unprocessed red meats.

A study published in Circulation in 2010, for instance, reviewed 20 previous studies of red and processed meat consumption and their links to heart disease and diabetes. Collectively, these studies included over 1.2 million people whose diet and health status were tracked for up to 18 years through detailed questionnaires, telephone interviews, or a combination of the two. The respondents were grouped by level of red meat consumption, level of processed meat consumption, and level of combined red meat and processed meat consumption.1

The study’s findings are particularly striking:

  • Those who ate a single serving of red meat per day were at no greater risk of heart disease or diabetes than those who ate less than a serving per week.
  • Each serving of processed meat eaten per day led to a 42% increase in risk of heart disease and a 19% increase in risk of diabetes. (Interestingly, the standard serving size for processed meats was one half the serving size for unprocessed meats.)
  • Each serving per day of meat, processed or unprocessed, led to an increased risk of heart disease, but this effect was largely derived from two studies. If these outlying studies were excluded, the risk fell to near normal. The risk of diabetes rose 12% for each serving of red or unprocessed meat.

In another, just-published study evaluating red meat consumption, researchers at Penn State compared the effects of four different diets on the cholesterol scores of 36 men and women between the ages of 30 and 65. All of the participants were nonsmokers who had no history of heart disease or diabetes, but all had high baseline LDL cholesterol scores.2

The participants followed each of the four different diets for five weeks each, with a one-week break between each diet. All meals were provided by the researchers, and each participant's diet was specifically designed to maintain their weight while meeting the macronutrient requirements of each type of diet.

One of the diets used in the study was the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which has been the gold standard of cholesterol-lowering diets. It features very low levels of saturated fats, low dietary cholesterol, and high levels of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds along with moderate amounts of lean protein, primarily from poultry and seafood.

A second diet, described by the researchers as a "Healthy American Diet," included full-fat dairy products, more oil and butter than the DASH diet, and more refined grains. Two additional diets were designed to be healthy while including increased amounts of protein from lean red meat. The breakdown for these diets are as follows:

% calories from fat

% calories from saturated fat

% calories from protein

grams of beef/day

Healthy American Diet (HAD)

33

12

17

20

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)

27

6

18

28

Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet (BOLD)

28

6

19

113

Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet plus additional protein (BOLD+)

28

6

27

153

Participants’ cholesterol levels were measured at the start of the study and at the end of each diet period. Compared with the Healthy American Diet, the DASH, BOLD, and BOLD+ diets all decreased the participants' LDL cholesterol by a minimum of 4.4%. In fact, the BOLD+ diet—with the highest amount of daily lean beef intake—yielded the greatest decrease in LDL: 5.5%. Similarly, the BOLD+ diet led to the greatest decrease in total cholesterol, of 4.6%, while the DASH diet reduced total cholesterol by just 3.8%.

These are just two examples of findings indicating that red meat can be part of a healthy diet. In both studies the critical issues are that the red meats included should be unprocessed and should have a low percentage of calories from saturated fat. In fact, based on these studies, lean cuts of beef such as select-grade top round, chuck shoulder pot roast, and 95% lean ground beef cooked using little added fat appear to be as safe as poultry and fish.

References

1. Micha R, Wallace SK, Mazaffarian D. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus. Circulation. 2010;121:2271-2283.

2. Roussell MA, Hill AM, Gaugler TL, et al. Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study: effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012;95(1):9-16.

Timothy Harlan, MD, is currently medical director and assistant professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine. He writes extensively on diet and health on his website, DrGourmet.com, an easy-to-use resource to navigate complex nutrition and wellness info translated for the American kitchen. He is the author of Just Tell Me What to Eat!

Recipes

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