You Don't Have to Give Up Red Meat to Be Healthy

The latest dietary guidelines encourage us to eat less red meat. Thankfully, Nutrition Diva is here to show you how to have your steak and eat it too.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #326

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recently released their long-awaited report, which will shape the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, due to be released later this year.

These guidelines are reviewed and updated every 5 years in light of the latest science. The changes tend to be incremental, at best, but we did get one big shake-up this year: The experts have finally acknowledged that cholesterol in food isn't something we need to worry about. (And you can be sure that the champagne corks were popping over at the American Egg Board offices!)

See also:  Are Eggs Really as Bad as Cigarettes?


Meanwhile, at the National Beef Association headquarters, they were crying in their beer. That's because the latest report continues to characterize red meat as something we should be avoiding. This is based on the fact that people who eat a lot of red meat tend to have higher rates of heart disease and cancer, and slightly lower life expectancy. 

Is "Red Meat" Really that Bad?

Those who are eating a couple of servings of red meat a week (or a month) have virtually the same disease rates as those who eat no red meat at all. 

I've always had a bit of a problem with "red meat" as a category. For one thing, it seems a bit arbitrary. Animals with 4 legs are considered "red meat" and animals with two legs (or fins) are considered "white meat." But when you look at the actual nutrient composition of meat, the factors that might distinguish red and white meat from one another cut across categories. Myoglobin is the compound that gives meat its reddish color, for example, and there's more myoglobin in chicken legs than in veal or pork.  

Dr. Walter Willett, of the Harvard School of Public Health, believes that the high amount of heme iron in red meat might play a role in red meat-related disease. Yet there is more iron in a serving of shrimp than there is in a serving of flank steak.  Red meat doesn't have a monopoly on fat or saturated fat either. 

See also: Color Confusion: Identifying Red and White Meat


Secondly, I think the red meat category is so broad that it makes the statistical relationships between "red meat" and disease sort of meaningless. Fast food burgers are red meat. So is grass-fed bison tartare. But we eat a whole lot more burgers than bison in this country. So, how much of this observed relationship between "red meat" and disease is really a link between fast food and disease? Impossible to say. 

Finally, reports often gloss over the amounts involved. In most of these analyses, the people with increased rates of heart disease or cancer are eating 2 or more servings of red meat a day. Those who are eating a couple of servings of red meat a week (or a month) have virtually the same disease rates as those who eat no red meat at all. 

So what's the solution?


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.