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April 27, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

What You Need to Know About Red Meat

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

How do you feel about red meat? There seems to be two main schools of thought: 1) Those that ban it entirely, categorizing it as a “bad” food that cannot cross your lips for fear that it will increase bad LDL cholesterol levels. And 2), those who think it is key to their energy levels due to its incredible protein and B vitamin content.

Which group do you fall into? Which group should you fall into? Thankfully, it may be somewhere in between.

Red meat includes beef, pork, sheep, horse, and duck. They are commonly eaten as hamburgers, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, corned beef, and salami.

These animal proteins have a bad rap because they tend to have more saturated fat, and if they are processed you can bet that they will also have high sodium content. Red meat may also contain a higher amount of heme iron, nitrites, and (if grilled) carcinogens.

So, what’s so bad about these things? Let’s take a look: 

  • Saturated fat. Saturated fat has been proven to increase our “lousy” LDL cholesterol levels, thereby increasing our risk for clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease. It has also been found to increase inflammation in our bodies, an aspect linked with all sorts of diseases. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, spices, and herbs, however, are all anti-inflammatory.
  • Heme iron. Heme iron is the type of iron found in meat. Plants also contain a kind of iron: non-heme iron. If we consume too much iron in our diets, it may eventually build up in the blood, liver, and heart – causing damage along the way. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements excess amounts of iron can result in toxicity and even death. Some research indicates that consuming too much heme iron may produce compounds that damage cells, thereby increasing the risk for cancer.
  • Sodium. Sodium (aka. salt) can increase our blood pressure – especially among those who are deemed salt-sensitive. Sodium is found in processed foods such as packaged snacks, soups, cereals, condiments. With red meats it is in cured meats, lunch meats, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and even some chicken breasts. All the more reason to read the label to see what has been added to your food! The 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines encourage most Americans to aim for 1,500 milligrams of sodium or less.
  • Nitrites. Nitrites are found in cured meats such as ham, bacon, hot dogs, sausages, and cold cuts (the same foods that are typically high in sodium). While some nitrites are naturally occurring, many are created during the manufacturing process. As research has linked nitrites with leukemia, cancer, and other scary health concerns, I happily advise you to limit your consumption to an occasional splurge. Perhaps you could save that polish sausage for your Independence Day roast this year or wait until you are at your next baseball game to grab a hotdog. They taste better when they are a part of the celebration anyway, if you ask me. If you are consuming a lot of processed meat throughout the week, try to squeeze in more bell peppers, cauliflower, and broccoli, too. Research has found that when we pair nitrite rich foods with those that are high in vitamin C, we may be able to reduce the negative impact on our body. For more information on nitrites, check out this fantastic blog by fellow registered dietitian Monica Reinagal.
  • Carcinogens. Carcinogens typically form when meat is cooked. Have you ever noticed the black charred crust that forms when you are grilling a steak? That, right there, is a carcinogen. According to the National Cancer Institute, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals that form when meat (including red meat) is cooked with high heat – particularly on the grill or pan-fried. Numerous observation-based population studies have found a correlation between the high consumption of charred meats and an increased risk of breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, and prostate cancers. That's reason enough to avoid cooking over high heat, or at least to eat around the charred spots.

The Choices

Just as is the case with any food, there are usually some options that are better. Here are the good and bad aspects of red meat:

  • The Good: Red meat is a great source of protein, which can help us feel full longer, B12, which helps our bodies to produce healthy DNA and red blood cells, iron, which may boost energy and stamina if you are anemic, and zinc, a key mineral for a healthy immune system.  Leaner cuts of red meat include sirloin, top round, eye round, and extra-lean ground beef (90% lean). Lean cuts of ground beef can actually be as nutritional as ground turkey. In some cases it may even be better.
  • The Bad: Steaks can be very lean, but many (such as the New York Strip) can be pretty high in fat and are typically presented in enormous portions (remember, 2 ounces per meal is all you need), making it something you should try to limit to the occasional meal. Plus, all red meat contains saturated fat, a type of fat that is known to raise cholesterol levels.
  • The Ugly: Look out for heavily processed and cured meats. Anytime you see those fatty-white streaks, beware! It is probably not something you should be eating very often.  

The Bottom Line

The USDA recommends that most healthy adults consume 5 to 6.5 ounces of lean protein daily. Note that they are not encouraging 5 to 6.5 ounces of red meat daily, but rather a healthy variety of proteins including lean meats, nuts, beans, and fish. One ounce of protein is 1 ounce of meat or poultry, ¼ cup beans, 1 tablespoon nut butter, 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of hummus.

As the recommendation is only about 6 ounces, by aiming for an average of 1-2 ounces at each meal with another 1 or 2 added through your snacks and you will be right on target to reach your daily nutrient needs. We truly do not need as much protein as we may think. If you want more information, you can go here for recommendations.

Just remember, choose leaner cuts of red meat by checking out the Nutrition Facts. Aim for less than 75 grams of total fat and less than 16 grams of saturated fat each day. Do this, and your heart will thank you.

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