Is Red Meat a Health Food? New Study Says It's OK in Moderation

Large cuts of beef at a butcher's shop in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Lean cuts of unprocessed red meat don't interfere with the benefits of a healthy diet, new research claims, as long as they're consumed in moderation. (Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

The average American is on track to eat more than 222 pounds of meat before the end of 2018—nearly 200 pounds more than the American Heart Association's yearly consumption recommendation. But new research suggests red meat can have a place in a healthy diet when consumed in moderation.

A Purdue University study, funded by beef and pork industry promotional boards, claimed that even in slightly greater quantities, lean, unprocessed cuts of red meat can aid in weight loss and heart disease prevention when incorporated into a diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

For 10 weeks, participants—all overweight or obese Americans ages 30 through 69—followed a Mediterranean diet that included red meat. One group consumed less than half a pound of red meat every week, per American Heart Association recommendations, while another followed the more typical intake of 1 pound per week.

Though both groups stuck to largely plant-based diets that derived most fats from olive oil, they consumed small amounts of low-fat cuts of beef and pork tenderloin, along with skinless, white-meat chicken and turkey that contained less than 10 grams of fat.

Despite the differences in red meat consumption, both groups experienced lowered cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as cholesterol and high blood pressure. The group that consumed more red meat lost over a pound more than the control group, though the latter experienced lower total cholesterol levels.

The results pointed to a more realistic option for the nearly 88 percent of Americans who have never gone meat-free, researcher Wayne Campbell told Newsweek.

"When people become mindful of types and quantities of food they consume, no matter if it's red meats or other types of foods, the more likely they are to be successful with adopting healthier eating patterns," he said.

Despite growing concern about red meat's effects on heart health, Americans still consume more red meat than poultry and shellfish, NPR reported in 2016. Choosing lean cuts free of added fat and preservatives that haven't been smoked, cured or salted is the healthiest way to keep red meat in the diet rather than eliminating it completely. A burger can be one of the best options, Campbell said, if it's made using 85 to 95 percent lean ground beef instead of traditional ground chuck.

Red meat is a common target of health organizations for its higher saturated fat content, which increases cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association suggests no more than 16 grams of saturated fat per day for the average 2,000-calorie diet. A McDonald's Big Mac contains more than 8 grams, already half of a daily serving.

A 2015 World Health Organization report concluded that red meat was "probably carcinogenic to humans." It said that every 0.1-pound portion of processed red meat consumed daily increased the risk for colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Errors in a widely cited paper have raised doubts about the Mediterranean diet's health benefits. Researchers retracted the results of a 2013 study after they discovered problems in how diets were randomly assigned to participants.