Red and processed meat: No worries, some or none?
Q: Similar to so much advice about the healthiest diet, I’m confused about how much red meat I can eat, if any. What’s your advice?
A: Experts continue to debate the right answer to this question. Avoiding red and processed meats has been a standard public health message for many years.
In 2019, a highly respected medical journal published a review of the literature on the topic. The authors concluded that there is “low” evidence that eating red meat or processed meat adversely effects health risks. Their advice: There’s no need to reduce your regular red meat and processed meat intake for health reasons.
Unsurprisingly, the backlash from most of the nutritional science community was sharp and swift. The study and its widespread reaction once again brought up the question of whether red meat and processed meat are bad for your health and if people should cut them out or simply cut back.
Accumulated body of evidence shows a clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and premature death. But the key word here is “high.” The exact amounts for safely consuming red meat are open to debate.
The majority of studies show that people with a relatively low intake have lower health risks. While there is no disadvantage to avoiding all red meat, my general recommendation is to stick to no more than two to three servings per week for meat lovers.
Don’t focus so much on actual serving sizes, but rather on red meat’s placement in meals. Instead of the main course, use red meat as a side dish. Consider red meat a luxury and not a staple food.
For processed meat, there is a stronger association with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer (especially colon cancer). Processed meat products contain high amounts of additives and chemicals, which may contribute to health risks. Again, there is not a specific amount that is considered safe, so you should keep processed meat intake to a minimum.
While many people are willing to pay more for organic and grass-fed beef, there are no firm studies that have shown they have nutritional or health advantages. But these types of red meat may be more personally desirable, as they contain low or no growth hormones compared with regular grain-fed beef.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)