Whether you're all about that beef or more veggie-centric, you've probably wondered how bad meat is for you. We dove into the research

By Locke Hughes
February 17, 2016

Ask a handful of health-minded folks about nutrition, and they can probably all agree on one thing: Veggies and fruits come out on top. But ask about red meat, and you'll likely get an array of adamant responses. So is red meat the worst thing you could eat or a staple of a healthy diet? (In related news, we have Your Guide to Building the Best Burger.)

Few foods have stirred up as much controversy in the health community as red meat has recently. In October 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified red meat as a "probable carcinogenic," citing processed red meat as the worst offender-in the same category as cigarettes. And after a 2012 study linked red meat with a higher risk of death, media headlines made it out to be nutritional anathema. Headlines read: "All red meat is risky," "Want to live longer? Hold the red meat," "10 reasons to stop eating red meat."

Predictably, there was a backlash, as an outpouring of support for beef's benefits emerged among carnivores ("Red meat: It does a body good!" another headline defended), and Americans still refuse to give up their daily burgers and bacon. While red meat consumption is actually on the decline from its peak in the 1970s, the average adult still eats 71.2 pounds of red meat per year-among the highest levels of meat consumption in the world.

So where does that leave us? Should we forgo red meat completely, or can it be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet? One note to remember: We're talking about red meat from a purely health-not moral or environmental-standpoint. (Plenty more on those aspects around the web.)

Like all foods, the decision whether to eat red meat is an individual choice and depends on many other factors. "Foods such as red meat can affect people in different ways, working really well for some and not so great for others," says Frank Lipman, MD, integrative and functional medicine physician, founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, and author of 10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat. "I'm a big advocate of listening to your own body to determine what's best for it."

That being said, science has weighed in on both the good and not-so-good effects of red meat in your diet. Here's how the research stacks up.

The Benefits of Beefing Up

Research shows that beef provides a number of key nutrients to the diets of U.S. adults. First, it provides plenty of protein, a macronutrient that helps to build muscle, keep you full, and regulate metabolism. A 3.5-ounce tenderloin contains 30 grams of protein for 215 calories.

Red meat is also a good source of many other nutrients, including B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Vitamin B12 is required for the proper functioning of just about every system in your body while energy-boosting iron provides oxygen to the blood and aids in metabolism. (Plus, women, especially of childbearing age, are more prone to iron deficiency. Try these iron-rich recipes for active women.) Red meat is also a good source of zinc, which is associated with a strong immune system and helps fight off sickness.

If you choose grass-fed beef over grain-fed (as you should-more on that later), you'll also get more of the good stuff, including heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may help lower blood pressure and promote weight loss, and fewer pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, says Lipman. It'll also contain less overall fat than factory-farmed, grain-fed beef (providing about the same amount as a boneless skinless chicken breast). And forget the idea that all fats are bad. One kind of monounsaturated fat found in red meat, called oleic acid, has been shown to be beneficial to your health, helping to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and reduce your risk of stroke.

Last but not least: If you're the type of person who likes meat, it tastes pretty darn delicious. (See: 6 New Burger Twists Under 500 Calories.)

The Downsides of Eating Meat

Red meat's connection with heart disease probably comes to mind first, and well, it isn't new-or unwarranted. A 2010 meta-analysis concluded processed meats (think sausage, bacon, hot dogs, or salami) are associated with a higher incidence of coronary heart disease. (The same study found no correlation with unprocessed cuts of red meat-such as sirloin, tenderloin, or filets.) Other large-scale observational studies have supported the association between processed meat intake and cardiovascular diseases and risk of death.

Consuming red meat has also been linked to a higher risk of cancer, especially colorectal (or colon) cancer in men, by a number of studies. While the association between breast cancer and red meat is still vague, one study found that eating red meat may lead to an elevated risk of breast cancer among premenopausal women.

The research at the forefront of more recent "beef is bad" arguments is the 2012 observational study that looked at more than 120,000 people for 22 to 28 years. Researchers found that people who regularly consumed red meat were more likely to die from all causes, notably heart disease and cancer. (This finding spawned the sensational "meat-will-kill-you" headlines referred to above.)

While researchers found that the risk of death increased for both processed and unprocessed red meat, processed meat had the edge with a 20 percent increased risk. The study authors also concluded that subbing in other, "healthier" protein sources (like fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, dairy, or whole grains) would lower their risk of death between seven to 14 percent. So, chicken and salmon for the win, right?

The Caveats

Not necessarily. It's important to keep in mind that most of these long-term, big studies are observational, not randomized and controlled studies (the gold standard in scientific research). Many nutrition writers have parsed the study's data and illuminated its shortcomings, including the fact that observational studies can suggest a correlation, but not causation, between red meat and mortality. (In other words, since people don't live in a bubble, other factors could certainly come into play that contributed to participants' health outcomes, such as sedentary lifestyles, underlying health conditions, smoking, underreported food diaries and more).

Plus, a 2011 summary of 35 studies found no sufficient evidence to support a link between red meat and colon cancer, citing the variable lifestyle and dietary factors inherent in population studies.

In addition, the entire conversation about saturated fat has recently been revisited and revised. No longer is "fat" itself health's mortal enemy, as it was in the past. Yes, red meat contains saturated fat, which isn't exactly brimming with pro-health benefits. (A 3.5-ounce tenderloin serves up 3.8 grams of the stuff along with 9.6 grams total fat.) But after saturated fats were demonized for nearly half a century, research suggested they weren't quite as harmful as we may have thought: A 2010 meta-analysis showed that there was not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat was associated with heart disease or cardiovascular disease.

Still, saturated fats have been proven to raise LDL, or "bad," cholesterol and other health issues, which is why USDA dietary guidelines suggest limiting saturated fats to under 10 percent of your daily calorie intake. (If you're eating 2,000 calories per day, that means the limit on saturated fat is 20 grams or less.)

Finally, what's the real deal with the WHO's declaration that it's a carcinogen? Although processed meat-along with cigarettes-was classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, it doesn't mean eating it carries the same risk of developing cancer as smoking. Eating 50 grams of processed meat daily raises your risk of cancer by 18 percent, relative to your initial risk, while smoking increases your risk by about 2,500 percent-not exactly apples to apples.

The Bottom Line on Beef: Your Game Plan

For Lipman, the harmful health consequences aren't so much about the meat itself, but rather what is being done to the meat. "Most factory farms give cows growth hormones so that they grow faster, and antibiotics to prevent the cows from getting sick in unsanitary conditions," he says.

If you choose to include meat in your diet, Lipman recommends choosing grass-fed red meat. If it doesn't say "grass-fed," you can assume it was fed grains. (You can shop for grass-fed meat online on sites like EatWild.com.) As for sausages, bacon, and other processed meat? Say sayonara, Lipman suggests. "Processed meat is never something I recommend."

In the end, what you eat is totally up to you. "Our health is affected by so many other lifestyle, behavioral, and genetic factors in addition to diet," explains Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. When it comes to red meat, less is undoubtedly better but some is fine: "Everything in moderation," she says.

Looking for a more exact recommendation? Unfortunately, government agencies like the USDA avoid prescribing a specific limit on red meat (likely because of powerful lobbyists from the beef and cattle industry, Nestle suggests). Mike Roussell, Ph.D., nutritional consultant and director of nutrition at PEAK Performance, recommends three- to four-ounce servings twice per week while other sources employ the eat it every "now and then." tactic. The real issue: Making sure the rest of your eating choices support your intake of red meat, Roussell says, just as you'd do if you were eating salmon or chicken.

So, as with most things in nutrition, there's no hard and fast rule on how much is too much. "Because everyone's bodies are different, it is difficult to offer a specific serving number," Lipman says. "Instead, I would recommend experimenting for yourself to determine what is best for your individual body." For some, that may be two times a week; for others, once per month-or perhaps none at all.