For several years there has been much debate over the benefits and risks of red meat on our health and the environment. There is evidence to support there being links between higher consumption levels of red meats and heart disease, certain cancers and type 2 diabetes. There is, however, evidence to support the notion that red meat forms a key part of a typical (meat-eaters) diet, being a good source of protein and B vitamins (B6 and B12). Indeed, it is thought that meat was incorporated into our early ancestor’s diets as far back as 2.6 million years ago and is thought to be an important part of brain development at this time.1 The benefits and risks of eating red meat are a matter of quality and quantity. Knowing the right types of meat and the recommended amounts can help you maintain optimal health.
About red meat
Health benefits of eating red meat
- Prevention of anaemia- Anaemia is a common condition where you have a reduced number of red blood cells, therefore reducing the amount of oxygen that is carried in the blood. Anaemia is caused by a lack of iron in a person’s diet. Individuals with anaemia usually present with tiredness and weakness. Red meat is a rich source of iron, furthermore, the type of iron found in red meat (haem iron) is more efficiently absorbed in the body than non-haem iron, which is usually found in plant-based food
- Prevention of sarcopenia- Sarcopenia is an age-related condition noted by a loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. This condition may increase the risk of falls, resulting in difficulties performing everyday tasks. This condition can be prevented or even reversed by strength training and healthy levels of protein intake
- Maintaining muscle mass- red meat is an excellent source of high-quality protein, containing all of the essential amino acids
- Improved exercise performance- An amino acid called beta-alanine, found in high quantities in red meat, creates carnosine in the body. Carnosine is a compound found to be important in muscle function. Carnosine has been linked to reduced muscle fatigue and improved performance in humans
- Good source of essential nutrients and vitamins
Nutrients we can get from red meat
The nutritional composition of lean red meat:
- A great source of high-value biological protein, iron, niacin, phosphorus, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and zinc
- A source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, selenium and, possibly, also vitamin D
- Relatively low in fat and sodium
- A source of a range of endogenous antioxidants and other bioactive substances, including taurine, carnitine, carnosine, ubiquinone, glutathione and creatine.2
Types of red meat
There are a number of red meat sources including; beef, lamb/ mutton, goat, veal, venison, bison/ buffalo and pork. There are also a number of other lesser-consumed red meats such as horse, boar and hare. The general rule is that if it is mammalian muscle meat and the meat is reddish in colour before cooking, then it is considered red meat.
Many processed meats are a subcategory of red meat, but notably less healthy options than fresh or unprocessed red meats. Processed meat is considered to be those meats that have been preserved in some way, such as cured, salted or smoked. Meat that has been artificially preserved with the use of chemicals such as bacon, sausages, ham and salami are also considered processed meat.
Ways to include red meat in our diet
Consuming red meat is only beneficial when it’s part of a healthy and balanced diet. Too much red meat or processed meat being consumed on a regular basis will have serious negative health effects that could shorten your life expectancy.
It is best to consume non-processed red meat, and lean red meat is healthier still. Sirloin, tenderloin and “round” are leaner cuts. Leaner meat will have less visible marbling. To further enhance how lean the meat is, consider cutting off as much fat as possible when preparing it.
There are ways that you can cook red meat to be healthier such as broiling or grilling to remove even more fat. Other healthy ways of preparing red meat include sautéing, baking and roasting.
The World Health Organisation found no evidence that eating raw red meat was safer, but did suggest that infection from eating raw meat be kept in mind.
It is widely advised that people who eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day should cut down to 70g or less.3
So if you eat red meat more than you should there are ways to reduce this:
- You could replace some of your red meat meals with chicken or fish
- Reduce portion size
- Bulk out your meal with healthier alternatives such as more vegetables or beans/ legumes
A study in the American Journal of Nutrition found that from a public health point of view, reducing red meat consumption, especially processed red meat, and replacing it with other healthier alternatives, should be considered to decrease Type 2 Diabetes risk.
How much is enough?
Side effects and how much to consume
Dietary guidelines from a variety of sources suggest that eating 90g of red meat daily is too much and from a health perspective should be reduced to 70g daily to reduce adverse health risks. This could also be considered to be a “deck of cards-sized portion”.
- Type 2 diabetes- The nitrates and nitrites used in preserving red meat have been shown to be harmful to the pancreas, which is the body's producer of insulin. Insulin regulates glucose in our bodies. It is also thought that the high levels of iron (haem iron) found in red meats can result in damage to tissues, in particular the cells in the pancreas. Weight gain, which can result from diets high in saturated fats, can also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes4
- Cancers- According to studies by the World Health Organisation, red meat has a Group 2A category indicating limited evidence to suggest it causes cancers. However, processed meat has a Group 1 category meaning that there is evidence that it is carcinogenic to humans, with sufficient evidence to show that it causes colorectal cancer in particular. There are also links with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer5
- Cardiovascular disease- Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of premature death in the US and around the world according to the American Heart Association. There have been countless studies linking high red meat and processed meat diets and heart disease and strokes, and these have been remarkably consistent. The two most common identified causes are the higher cholesterol and saturated fat levels found in these foods. Researchers have found that eating too much red meat results in a 22% chance of cardiovascular disease
The health benefits to eating red meat are clear in that they provide high levels of essential proteins and vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and other bioactive substances, whilst being low in sodium. The leaner the red meat is the lower the fat content. The right method of cooking red meat can also optimise the health benefits and reduce the risks. It is important to avoid processed meats where possible, and be mindful of the increased risks as a result of increased salt and chemical content.
- Wyness L. The role of red meat in the diet: nutrition and health benefits. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society [Internet]. 2016 Aug [cited 2023 Mar 2];75(3):227–32. Available from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/role-of-red-meat-in-the-diet-nutrition-and-health-benefits/7EE0FE146D674BB59D882BEA17461F1B
- Valenzuela C, de Romaña DL, Olivares M, Morales MS, Pizarro F. Total iron and heme iron content and their distribution in beef meat and viscera. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2009 Dec;132(1–3):103–11.
- Hill CA, Harris RC, Kim HJ, Harris BD, Sale C, Boobis LH, et al. Influence of beta-alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity. Amino Acids. 2007 Feb;32(2):225–33.
- Williams P. Nutritional composition of red meat. Nutrition & Dietetics [Internet]. 2007 Sep [cited 2023 Mar 2];64(s4 The Role of):S113–9. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-0080.2007.00197.
- Articles [Internet]. NUS UHC. [cited 2023 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.nus.edu.sg/uhc/resources/articles
- Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/cancer-carcinogenicity-of-the-consumption-of-red-meat-and-processed-meat
- Red alert: processed and red meat [Internet]. Diabetes UK. [cited 2023 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/enjoy-food/eating-with-diabetes/what-is-a-healthy-balanced-diet/processed-and-red-meat
- Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Schulze MB, Manson JE, Willett WC, et al. Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: 3 cohorts of US adults and an updated meta-analysis123. Am J Clin Nutr [Internet]. 2011 Oct [cited 2023 Mar 2];94(4):1088–96. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3173026/
- Red meat and bowel cancer risk [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2022 [cited 2023 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-guidelines-and-food-labels/red-meat-and-the-risk-of-bowel-cancer/
- Rajpathak SN, Crandall JP, Wylie-Rosett J, Kabat GC, Rohan TE, Hu FB. The role of iron in type 2 diabetes in humans. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2009 Jul;1790(7):671–81.
- Chemicals produced in the gut after eating red meat may contribute to heart disease risk [Internet]. www.heart.org. [cited 2023 Mar 2]. Available from: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2022/08/01/chemicals-produced-in-the-gut-after-eating-red-meat-may-contribute-to-heart-disease-risk