However, considering the environmental impacts of conventional meat production—and the potential risks of consuming too much saturated fat—not all meats are created equal for your health. Where your meat comes from and how you cook it matters. If you're looking to (ahem) bone up on your meat intel, what follows is everything you need to know according to two registered dietitians and one top functional medicine doctor.
What are the health benefits of meat?
Before we get into the meat rules, it helps to know what the health benefits of meat (which here, refers to animal proteins such as beef, pork, and chicken) actually are. You'll be hard up to find a registered dietitian who loves meat more than Diana Rodgers, RD. The host of The Sustainable Dish podcast and creative force behind the film Sacred Cow, she regularly speaks about the importance of animals in our food system. "Meat has nutrients that you can't find anywhere else," she says plainly.
One of the biggies according to Rodgers is vitamin B-12, which plays a crucial role in keeping the body's nerve and blood cells healthy as well as providing the body with energy. "It's also important for brain health," Rodgers says, and scientific studies back her up. It's very difficult to get from plant foods, which is why so many vegans and vegetarians have to supplement.
Another nutrient Rodgers says you can only get from meat is heme iron. While non-heme iron is found in plant-based sources including whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, she explains that heme iron is more readily absorbed in the body, therefore making it a more efficient source of the nutrient.
Additionally, all meat (as well as fish and eggs) is a complete source of protein, meaning that it has the proper amounts of all nine "essential" amino acids that your body needs to function. While lots of plant foods are rich in protein, very few of them are complete proteins (notable exceptions being soy and quinoa), meaning that you have to be a bit more strategic with the pairing of foods to ensure you're getting enough of everything.
How much meat is healthy to eat?
The elephant in the room: Decades of scientific research has found that, generally speaking, a diet high in saturated fat (which is present in all meat, but particularly red meat) increases one's risk of chronic disease such as heart disease and stroke. However, Mark Hyman, MD, functional medicine doctor and author of The Pegan Diet ($22), says that the truth isn't so cut and dry.
"The 'saturated fat is bad' dogma is not that simple," Dr. Hyman says. "It also tunes out that a lot of the ailments we blame on fat are actually caused by sugar and excessive starches. I don’t think everyone should eat a ton of saturated fat right now without any consequences, but it might not be the villain we made it out to be."
That said, much of the health community is still wary of overconsuming saturated fats, which is why the question of how much meat is healthy to eat is still up for debate. Rodgers says she eats meat every day, while Hyman says it's more of a supporting player in his life. "Meat should not be the star of the show," Dr. Hyman says. "While we need the right amount of protein for our age and activity level [about 75 grams a day], the Pegan diet is not a high protein diet. Its mainstay is plants." He says a good goal to aim for is between four to six ounces of protein (from animals or plants) per meal.
Meanwhile, the 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends the average adult eat 40 ounces per week of "protein foods," which includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts; it doesn't offer specific guidance for how much of that should be meat. (It also advocates for choosing leaner cuts of meat and avoiding processed meats like hot dogs and ham.)
As a multicultural nutrition counselor, Lellieth Latchman, RD, says cultural background can play a role in how much meat someone may want to eat as well. "Some cultures eat more meat than others," she says. "I start by asking someone what types of meat they like to eat. From there, we can have a discussion about how different types of meat affects the body and what types of meat will help them achieve their health goals, whether that's lowering cholesterol, minimizing the risk for chronic disease, or something else."
All that said, if you're looking for some more specific guidance on what kind of meat to eat, here are some tips from the experts to ensure you're getting the most nutritious, beneficial animal foods:
1. Opt for minimally-processed, preservative-free meat
Here's what most everyone does agree on: Processed red meat full of preservatives and additives (such as bacon, salami, and hot dogs) is more strongly and consistently linked to health problems than sources that don't contain these ingredients. For example, just a few ounces of deli meat per day can increase a person's risk of colorectal cancer. How do you avoid these types of ingredients? Read the label. All additives used in preparing or processing meat must appear on the ingredients list. Buying your meat fresh and seasoning it at home yourself with nutrient-rich herbs is the healthier way to go.
2. Pay attention to meat sourcing as much as possible
Buying sustainable, ethically-sourced meat is often more expensive than buying conventional, but Dr. Hyman says the health benefits make it worth it. "When it comes to meat, quality matters most," he says. There are three types of meat he says to prioritize: wild meat, grass-fed meat, and regenerative raised meat. Wild meat refers to elk and deer that eat wild forage and roam free. Similarly, grass-fed meat refers to pigs, cows, goats, and chickens that eat grass. Regenerative raised meat means the animals live in pastured grasslands, similarly to the natural ecosystems that existed before industrial agriculture.
"Striking new research has found a rich array of phytonutrients in grass-fed meat," Dr. Hyman says. He explains that grass-fed meat has been found to be higher in phytochemicals (which reduce inflammation) and omega-3s. Seeking out meat that is wild, grass-fed, or regenerative also ensures the animals were treated better than those that suffer the fate of factory farms, making it a win all the way around. (This type of meat very likely has a lower environmental impact than what comes from factory farms.)
What do you do if you can't afford to buy quality-sourced meat on a regular basis? This is where your own personal ethics come into play. If animal welfare is just as or more important to you than the meat's nutrient density, take a page out of Dr. Hyman's book and buy meat less often, prioritizing plant-based protein sources when it's out of your budget. (He's also a big fan of canned tuna, salmon, and sardines, which are high in omega-3s.) Meat sourcing is also incredibly important to Rodgers, but she believes in the nutrients in meat so much that she advocates buying conventional over no meat at all. "Buy the best of what your budget can allow," she says.
Latchman says it can also be both cost-effective and sustainable to seek out cuts of meat you may not normally eat. "In Caribbean culture, every part of the animal is used, even the tongue and [male] sex organs," she says. Not feeling that adventurous? She says to try liver, which is rich in iron and is especially good for, well, your liver.
3. Cook your meat at a low temperature
The last major meat tip the experts say to keep in mind is how you cook your meat. Dr. Hyman says that cooking meat at a low temperature—such as baking, roasting, poaching, or stewing—maintains its nutrient integrity more than a high heat method like frying and grilling. Cooking method is something Latchman says she talks about often with her clients. "If I have a client who tells me they like chicken, for example, I tell them how the health benefits of baked chicken are different than the health benefits of fried chicken."
Both Dr. Hyman and Latchman say they recommend liberal use of using herbs when cooking meat, too. "Some, like turmeric and ginger, are anti-inflammatory. Others, like oregano, are antibacterial and antifungal," Dr. Hyman says. "Find what you love!"
To recap, what's most important to keep in mind when it comes to meat is what's in it (preferably nothing), where it's sourced from, and how you cook it. Keeping these rules front of mind will ensure that you're getting the absolute most out of your meat.
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