Is Meat Healthy? It’s Surprisingly Complicated

Photo: Getty Images / Claudia Totir
With the buzzy “plant-based” Game Changers documentary coming on the heels of the meat-heavy keto diet craze, there’s been a lot of debate lately in the healthy eating world about the merits of giving up meat.

“It’s been a very big trend to avoid all animal foods,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, the founder and CEO of New York Nutrition Group. “I get a lot of emails from clients who want to go on a ‘plant-based diet,’ but people don’t understand what that means and why it’s important.”

The trend of eating more greens is certainly founded in reality: In addition to being more environmentally sustainable, plant-based diets have been linked to lots of health benefits, including decreasing the risk for certain types of cancers, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Yet for every health expert who advocates for reducing meat consumption, you have others who are adamant that meat (even oh-so-controversial beef!) should have a place on any healthy eater's plate.

While there are undoubtedly downsides to meat—red meat specifically, but poultry to some extent as well—there are still health benefits to eating animal protein. “You can incorporate [red meat] into your life in a healthful way, but it is something you have to monitor,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, a New York-based nutritionist.

A whole lot of confusing research

Confused about meat? You’re not alone. Nutrition research is constantly sending mixed messages (and not just about meat). While countless studies have linked red meat to health issues including colorectal cancer, brain tumors, breast cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, a controversial 2019 study had experts up in arms after it concluded that there’s not enough evidence about the harms of red meat to recommend eating less of it.

In a position statement, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics noted that the 2019 study set the bar for meat consumption at three 4-ounce servings per week (less than the four and a half servings that the average American eats per week), and that the research actually did show fewer deaths from cancer and all causes among people who ate less red meat.

There are other reasons for conflicting evidence. Studies often fail to fully account for other variables, such as smoking, drinking, or a sedentary lifestyle, that can predispose a person to health problems. What’s more, “people don’t eat one food in isolation,” says Zeitlin, making it hard to isolate the effects of any one food. Most nutrition studies also tend to look at extremes: People either eat way too much (or not enough) of any particular food, which may not be how most of us eat in real life.

Moderation isn’t sexy, but it’s still your best bet

The temptation to askew a single food, like meat, lines up with our natural human tendency to need clear rules and boundaries. We’re all looking for the golden ticket to health—one food that will cure disease or another that we should avoid like the plague. But that thinking makes traditional advice to eat “everything in moderation” unappealing. The people who study and practice nutrition every day ultimately recommend moderation for the healthiest, most sustainable diet.

“Everything can have a place in your diet, but it has to be balanced and customized,” says Moskovitz.

Experts seem to agree that while red meat isn’t going to kill you, you can’t eat it with abandon. Unlike plant foods, which contain heart-healthy unsaturated fat, all types of meat are a source of saturated fat, Zeitlin says. And eating too much saturated fat is definitely proven to increase your cholesterol levels, clogging up your arteries and eventually increasing heart disease risk. The cancer risks of red meat are linked to cooking methods (particularly char-grilling) for fatty meats like sausages, hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as the nitrates in processed meats like sausage, deli meat, and bacon—which the World Health Organization classifies as a carcinogen.

It’s not just red meat that’s potentially a problem, either. A 2020 study of nearly 30,000 Americans found that people who ate just two servings per week of poultry were at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RD, a clinical professor of nutrition at Boston University and author of Nutrition & You, says that finding was likely because people eat a whole lot of poultry skin and dark meat, which are relatively high in saturated fat. “For years we gave poultry a halo,” says Dr. Blake—but it’s never wise to eat an entire rotisserie chicken.

That said, animal proteins do offer a number of unique health benefits. All meat is a complete source of protein, meaning each serving has all the essential amino acids your body needs to function. Poultry, fish, and red meat contain heme iron, which your body absorbs better than the non-heme iron in plant foods, to help protect against anemia. Animal foods like dairy, fish, eggs, and meat are also some of the only food sources of vitamin B12, which supports nerve function and red blood cell production, adds Zeitlin. And beef, specifically, is a great source of immune-supporting zinc and brain-boosting choline.

Okay, so is any amount of meat healthy?

With all of the debate surrounding meat consumption (and its very real pros and cons), it can easy to feel confused about whether or not meat is bad for you. But you shouldn't feel forced to cut out meat completely if you enjoy it.  “There’s nothing you have to avoid in your diet to be healthy. Your body is not going to shut down if you eat some red meat. It’s all about balance and moderation,” says Moskovitz.

The goal is to stick to the American Heart Association’s recommendation of having less than 7 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat (about 13 grams of saturated fat in a 2,000-calorie diet). On a scale of most to least saturated fat, red meat tops the list, followed by dark meat poultry, white meat poultry, and finally fish. Most saturated fat in poultry is in the skin, says Zeitlin. And while pork is technically a red meat, many cuts are actually very lean.

Dr. Blake and Moskovitz suggest following the AHA’s recommendation of maxing out at six ounces of (preferably lean) animal proteins per day, like white-meat poultry, fish, or pork—three ounces at lunch and three ounces at dinner. “That’s visually tiny compared to what most Americans are eating,” she says. Zeitlin is a bit more cautious, suggesting four weekly servings of white meat poultry max.

If you do crave a steak or burger, try to limit yourself to one or two servings max per week, suggest Moskovitz, Zeitlin, and Dr. Blake. Vandana Sheth, RDN, a Los Angeles-based dietitian and author of My Indian Table, who specializes in vegetarian diets, is more conservative, suggesting just one or two servings per month.

It’s not meat itself that makes animal protein potentially unhealthy but rather the quantity and the type of meats we eating. To that end, look for leaner beef cuts labeled “extra lean,” “round,” “loin,” or “sirloin,” “choice,” or “select” (but not “prime select”), and try to skip processed meats like ham and bacon altogether. Grill or bake whatever type meat you’re cooking, and avoid deep-frying or cooking in butter as much as possible to keep the saturated fats to a minimum. And if you have a family or personal history of high cholesterol or blood pressure, talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about your needs (Zeitlin says people in those situations would probably want to limit themselves to red meat once or twice a month).

As far as fish goes, experts say it’s more about a minimum than a max. Fish has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and is very low in saturated fats, and research suggests that less than 15 percent of Americans eat the recommended eight to 12 ounces (two to three servings) of fish per week. “We know two fish meals, especially fatty fish, has been shown to help increase longevity and reduce heart disease risk,” says Dr. Blake.

“When possible, I suggest enjoying more fish, especially heart-healthy choices such as salmon or poultry, in place of red meat,” adds Sheth.

Of course, those meat products should be eaten within an overall healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Dr. Blake suggests keeping half of your plate fruits and veggies, a quarter whole grains, and a quarter meat. “If you keep the portion of protein lean and small, you’ll be fine,” she says.

If you ultimately choose to forego meat, don’t forget that it is possible to be an unhealthy vegetarian. Eating nothing but broccoli and rice deprives you of nutrients you need, while research has noted that coconut oil raises triglycerides and LDL, the bad type of cholesterol, as much as animal sources of fats. “If a vegetarian diet is not balanced, it can be very unhealthy," says Dr. Blake. So remember to increase your variety of plant sources, bone up on complete proteins and iron sources for vegetarians and vegans, and if needed, talk to your doctor about supplementation options to ensure you get enough B vitamins and other nutrients.

Likewise, don’t be fooled by the health halos of alt-meat. “Don’t assume all animal-based products are unhealthy or all plant products are healthy,” says Dr. Blake. “If you’re replacing a lean hamburger with a plant-based burger made with coconut oil, you haven’t done anything healthy.” As with real hamburgers, moderation is key with most alt-meat products.

Looking for some legit healthy plant proteins to round out your meat consumption? These are an RD's top picks: 

Another confusing healthy eating topic? Processed foods. And here's your no-nonsense guide to what serving sizes should really look like for 10 healthy foods.

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