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Got a Beef With Beef? The Latest on Red Meat and Your Health

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Most men agree: it’s never too cold to fire up the grill. So even though the “official” cookout season is behind us, we thought you’d like to hear the latest on a few of your grill favorites like red meat and ‘dogs. You already probably know that red meat—and certainly processed meat—aren’t foods to eat with abandon. But how much is ok, and how much puts your health at risk? Scientists have been hard at work lately, investigating the risks of red and processed meat—and some are debunking old thinking on the subject. Some of their findings just may surprise you!  Read on for a rundown on the research….

Blame Red Meat?
If you’ve made it your habit to decline the steak and choose the chick, one of the newest studies will make you feel rightfully vindicated: a 2010 study in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, published findings that choosing other proteins like poultry, low-fat dairy, nuts and fish over red meat could help lower heart disease risk. In fact, women in the study who replaced a serving of poultry for red meat had a 19 percent lower risk for heart disease.  Though the study was conducted among a population of women, scientists believe that results would be similar in men.

But keep in mind, that’s just heart disease—red meat (and processed meat, which is usually included in the same group) has been tied to other chronic disease conditions, like cancer and diabetes. Take, for example, another study which found that the risk of dying (largely from heart disease and cancer) was 30 percent higher in a group of research participants who ate the most red meat. In the study, those who ate the least red meat per week—quantified as the equivalent of about one and a half quarter pound burgers—had the lowest risk of dying. So if you’re a lover of red meat, that’s mixed news:  you’ve got to keep the amount you eat under control, but you don’t have to eliminate it completely.

Blame Processed Meat?
Taking a seemingly different turn from all the studies down on red meat is research that may surprise you. Get ready for this: in a 2010 study also published in Circulation, researchers found that there’s no increased risk for heart disease with the consumption of non-processed red meat like beef, lamb and pork. But, the study did find a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease with the daily consumption of nearly two ounces of processed meat (prepared by smoking, curing, salting or adding other chemical preservatives) like bacon, deli meat, hot dogs and sausage.

Here we go again, right? Is this another case of the science world sending confusing messages with mixed results? While it’s frustrating to hear dueling health messages (Red meat ups your risk! Red meat causes no additional risk!), the truth is, scientists still have a lot of unanswered questions, and results often depend on major differences in research design (some studies group processed meat in with fresh red meat). Still, as with any topic where there still seems to be discord, your take-home message should be all about moderation. So, that means you can have that (guilt-free) fillet or a Kielbasa at the ball park without feeling like you’re flushing health down the tube—just as long as you keep an eye on how often you do it. For now, until we know more about the potential health effects, the safest way to keep red and processed meat in your diet is to contain your consumption to just one serving a week.

One angle that the studies do agree on is that when it comes to processed meat, it’s especially important to watch what you eat. In addition to elevating heart disease risk, there’s increased risk for diabetes: women in the Nurses’ Health Study who ate processed meat five times per week had a 38 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes than those who ate those meats less than once a week.

Blame...Luncheon Meat?!
Most people with a heart for health have no qualms about limiting processed meat like hot dogs and bacon—but forget to factor in a limitation on things like lunch meat. In general, the less your food (of any kind, not just meat) has been processed, the better. Think of it this way: whole grains retain more nutrients, and fresh, whole fruits aren’t adulterated with sugars—it stands to reason that unprocessed meats would be no different. So, if you’re having a turkey sandwich, roast a breast yourself and slice it thin for sandwiches instead of depending on slimy, salty packaged deli meat. That said, a ham sandwich for lunch now and then isn’t the worst you can do (and especially if you’re choosing it over a couple slices of pizza). In fact, researchers did note that conservative consumption of processed meat—one small serving per week or less—wouldn’t add much to heart disease risk.

What’s a serving? A small portion of processed meat (about two ounces) is about one hot dog or a couple slices of deli meat. To improve the heart-smart quality of your diet, think of ways to cut back on processed meat without losing it completely if it’s something you enjoy. For example, instead of a thick sandwich heaped with ham, add a serving, but bulk it up with sliced tomato, lettuce, onions and peppers. And instead of eating it every day, to cut back on the amount of processed food meat you eat, try to fill the rest of the week with other non-processed sandwich fillings like peanut or almond butter, tuna or hummus.

No Blame—But Variety
Keeping your diet healthy shouldn’t mean cutting out the foods you enjoy. And filling your week with a variety of protein sources—red meat, fish, poultry and vegetarian picks—not only keep your disease risk in check, but they also provide different nutrient profiles that enhance your health. And as a final note, don’t forget that the preparation method of your red meat can further make a difference in the health of it, too. If you’re grilling your meat, just be mindful of the extra risks, since research has found that eating well done meat cooked at high temperatures (like in grilling) increases the risk of prostate and pancreatic cancer among men who are piling their plates with these foods. So, take a few precautions to reduce your risk like cooking on the cooler part of the grill, learning to appreciate meat that isn’t well-done and marinating cuts before you cook them.

A healthy diet doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) deprive you of the things you love to eat, like red meat and even the occasional serving of processed meat. A beef tenderloin makes one of the finest dinners you can dig into—but so does a juicy lentil burger or a fresh piece of tuna. And since all types of meat have slightly different nutrition profiles, mixing up your choices for protein, and including red meat, ensures you’re keeping a variety of flavors and nutrients in your diet.

So, go ahead and throw a steak on the grill—even a hot dog—and don’t waste time feeling guilty about it. Just know that variety isn’t only the spice of life, as they say—it’s the health, too!