Red Meat: Nutritional Friend or Foe?

I recently had a thought-provoking conversation with a colleague of mine who was born and bred in Greece. It all started when I mentioned how the “Mediterranean Diet” seemed to be the next hot topic in the research arena after which he facetiously responded, “What’s that?”.

He went on to explain how intrigued he was by the sheer repackaging, “branding” and, ultimately, monetization of what he considered “normal” dietary practices.

Indeed the Mediterranean style of eating is one that’s become increasingly popular around the world, as eating this way has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of a range of chronic diseases.

In the context of our conversation was a lengthy discussion on red meat consumption and the widespread misconceptions that surround it.

Red meat is undoubtedly the boogeyman of the Western diet, shunned due to its relatively high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. In fact, red meat has been deemed the culprit in just about every life-threatening condition from heart disease to cancer.

As an American, I’ve always found it interesting how we possess all the “rules” and guidelines pertaining to good nutrition and living well, yet we’re still among the heaviest, sickest and most stressed people worldwide.

On the flip side, the many Europeans who smoke in moderation, drink in moderation and have diets largely comprised of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat are relatively leaner, much healthier and arguably happier than us here in the states.

So, what’s the problem here?

Why are we so quick to shun red meat?

What’s wrong with taking in a little beef or lamb on occasion?

Personally, when it comes to healthy eating and good nutrition in general, I believe in moderation, not elimination. Individual preference is one thing but denying oneself is another. If you like red meat you can eat red meat, as it’s an excellent source of many health-promoting nutrients including protein, vitamin B12, selenium, iron and zinc.

Related Article: Why I Preach Moderation as Opposed to Elimination for Good Health

Unbeknownst to many, red meat is not the sole cause of obesity, poor health and early death in America or anywhere else. After all, humans have been eating meat since the beginning of time. The real problem with red meat starts and ends with traditional Western practices, specifically in terms of preparation methods, portion sizes and food pairings.

For starters, barbecuing, frying or broiling meat is an issue, as these cooking methods typically necessitate the use of very high heats.

A lot of folks don’t realize that cooking meat at high temperatures (above 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 177 degrees Celsius) can lead to the formation of carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Prolonged exposure to these chemicals is known to promote cancer development.

The presence of carcinogenic chemicals is greatest when meats are prepared “well-done”, charred/blackened or smoked since the cooking time and, ultimately, the exposure period is considerably more prolonged. In fact, the effects of long-lasting exposure are quite similar to that which occurs amongst individuals who smoke cigarettes.

So, just think about that for a second and then ask yourself a couple of questions: When is the last time you seared or stewed red meat at low temperatures? Have you ever enjoyed it cooked to rare or medium rare to reduce heat exposure? If your answer to either question is “no” and you are’’t willing to change it up a bit, then red meat might in fact be your worst enemy. The choice is all yours.

Now, here’s another question to ask yourself: How much red meat do you eat?

Indeed, countless studies have shown that Americans eat more meat than any other population in the world. For instance, the average French person eats about 12-13 ounces of red meat each week whereas an American eats in excess of 30-32 ounces a week. Considering that a standard portion of red meat here in the states is 8-12 ounces, this isn’t at all difficult to do.

So, does this sound like a problem to you? Especially given the large amounts of processed jerkies, sausages and lunchmeats in the American diet? Is red meat really a nutritional foe or is overconsumption the real problem?

Although quite nutritious, red meat does contain higher levels of saturated fat than most other animal-based foods. So yes, it’s important to limit your intake in order to avoid the adverse health effects that are more typically associated with very high intakes of saturated fat (heart disease and high blood pressure).

The cholesterol content in red meat isn’t a factor, as dietary cholesterol does not contribute to the development of high-cholesterol and related health problems.

In general, red meat consumption should be limited to no more than 12-14 ounces per week for optimal health and disease prevention.

Related Article: Effective Strategies for Avoiding Hypertension

It’s also important to opt for leaner cuts like loins, tenderloins, top sirloin, leg of lamb or extra-lean ground varieties (90-95% lean). In addition, you should trim any visible fat from your meats prior to cooking them and remove any remaining visible fat prior to eating them.

Another good practice is to choose free-range, grass-fed meats over grain-fed meats whenever possible, as they’re naturally leaner.

There’s one more thing that I have to emphasize here: Red meat pairing means everything and most people are doing it all wrong!

If you eat red meat, you’ve likely paired it with potatoes, rice and even eggs at some point in time. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem if done on very rare occasions but what does the rest of your diet look like?

Are vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans and peas) or other plant-based foods key components of your dietary repertoire? Is your fiber intake intact? Do you regularly consume healthy fats like nuts and seeds, olive oil or avocado?

I ask these questions because when it comes to red meat consumption, the general food pairings you choose and the overall quality of your diet really do matter.

As an example, many people don’t know that combining red meat with vegetables like collards, kale, spinach, broccoli, carrots, parsley and celery helps the body to better absorb dietary calcium. In addition, the chlorophyll housed in leafy green vegetables can actually help to detoxify red meat.

Personally, I regularly incorporate seafood, poultry and occasional red meat into my diet for protein and other nutrient purposes. However, plant-based eating is essentially my way of life, as I practiced veganism for years.

While I’m no longer a vegan, to this day I can effortless consume in excess of 10-15 servings of fresh veggies, fruits and legumes on any given day.

Remarkably, I’ve never felt healthier!

Related Article: How I Control My Weight By Eating One Meal a Day

Once again, moderation is key here. As holds true for virtually any and all foods, adverse health complications and effects can arise when too much is consumed too often and red meat is by all means no exception. When eaten the right way and in moderation, there’s no doubt that red meat can be a healthy inclusion in a well-balanced diet.

If you’re truly a fan of red meat, better to arm yourself with the real facts and use them to preferentially guide your desired eating behaviors as opposed to just hanging on the beliefs, thoughts and perspectives of others. In all actuality, you can make red meat your best friend or your worst enemy. In the end the choice is all yours.