Should You Skip Red Meat? Some Studies Say It’s Not Necessary

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
January 18, 2024
A woman eating a hamburger.

You’re at a sports bar and would like to get something somewhat healthy. Your first instinct may be to order a salad, but surprisingly, you might be better off with a burger. Yes, many burgers are high in saturated fat, sodium and preservatives. And some experts consider eating a lot of red meat to be risky heath behavior.

Red meat is controversial. On one hand, it’s linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. But on the other hand, red meat also is a great source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B-12. Two recent studies provide more clarification as to the role red meat plays in chronic disease.

In the first study, researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that red meat can raise the risk for type 2 diabetes, while replacing meat with legumes and modest amounts of dairy products lowered the risk for type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This is important, as type 2 diabetes is an epidemic in the U.S., raising the risk for heart disease, kidney disease, dementia and pancreatic and liver cancers.  

Simply looking at the overall results, red meat appears to be a significant contributor to type 2 diabetes. But researchers couldn’t explain the connection, leading them to believe that red meat alone wasn’t the problem and that maybe red meat consumers had other similarities.

So researchers continued analyzing the data and found that red meat consumers with type 2 diabetes also had higher body mass indexes (BMI) and were less physically active, suggesting they were overweight or obese – a primary risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. After factoring these variables into the data analysis, researchers found that although red meat still contributed to the development of type 2 diabetes, about half of the elevated risk with associated with excess body weight.

“Some experts theorize that red meat may have ties to insulin resistance, which might explain the red meat connection to type 2 diabetes,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “However, the takeaway I get from this study is the link between being overweight, sedentary and type 2 diabetes. Red meat may play a role, but being overweight is probably more important.”

Meanwhile, in the second study, Baylor University researchers looked at the role red meat consumption plays in triggering inflammation, a primary risk factor for many chronic diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. They didn’t find link between eating red meat and inflammation, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

One of the variables included in the data analysis was BMI. Researchers ran statistics with and without BMI. When BMI wasn’t included in the analysis, a connection between red meat and inflammation was found; however, when BMI was factored into the data, results suggested that BMI was a significant contributor to inflammation. The overall conclusion was that obesity, not red meat, is the true culprit behind inflammation.

“These studies are not giving us permission to eat a lot of red and processed meats -- that’s still risky behavior,” says Kaminetsky. “However, if you eat higher quality red meat with appropriate portions and sound dietary choices, it’s probably okay.”

6 Tips to Help Keep Eating Red Meat Healthy 

  • Choose lean cuts of meat. You can usually find meat that’s 90 percent lean. Sometimes you can find it as high as 93 or 95 percent lean. Also, meats labels choice or select will leaner than those labeled prime.
  • Consider alternatives to grain-fed meat. You might benefit from higher quality meats such as organic and grass-fed as opposed to pasture-raised and grain fed.
  • Watch out for marbling. Marbling gives the meat a lot of flavor, but it’s also added unsaturated fat. Look for a leaner cut.
  • Trim visible fat off meat. You can do this before or after cooking.
  • Limit your intake. Many people order an 8-ounce steak while dining out; however, the recommended serving size for meat between three and four ounces. It’s also suggested to limit red meat to no more than three times per week.
  • Use a lighter cooking method. You may love Philly cheesesteaks, but the ingredients are usually fried in a skillet, which requires oil and adds more fat to the meat. Lighter cooking methods include grilling, roasting or broiling meat.
  • Select healthy sides and beverages. You may want a side of French fries and soda, but better choices would be a salad with dressing on the side or plain baked potato and unsweetened ice tea or water.  

“If your doctor asked you to eliminate or even limit meat from your diet for health reasons, continue following their advice, regardless of these studies,” says Kaminetsky.

If you don’t have a doctor, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. As part of the MDVIP Wellness Program, your doctor can help you live a heart-healthy style. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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