There are some 8 million Americans who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, but many others are still eating a record amount of meat and poultry, reports the Seattle Times. For those who do eat meat, here's what nutritionists and doctors really think about it—and how you could do so healthily.
What nutrients are in meat?
Meat is a good source of various nutrients. Beef, pork, and lamb, contain vitamins A, B, D, and K, as well as copper, chromium, folic acid, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and zinc, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, the medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at the NYU Langone Medical Center. In addition to these nutrients, meat is a good source of protein and vitamin B12, adds Samantha Nazareth, MD, a double board-certified internal medicine doctor and gastroenterologist. And red meat is nutrient-dense, too with the addition of riboflavin, phosphorus choline, and niacin, notes Kris Sollid, RD, the senior director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council. That's part of the reason why it's one of the best types of meat you could eat.
This long list of nutrients has specific health benefits. Vitamin B12 is critical for metabolism, heart, nerve, and muscle health, according to Sollid. And iron, found in both plant and animal foods, is key for metabolism and heart health as well. Plus, people better absorb iron from animal foods—and absorbing iron from plant sources is easier if you eat meat, too, says Sollid. Some research also shows there are other benefits of high-protein diets that include meat, such as an increase in metabolism, strong bones, and muscle mass maintenance.
There are many opinions on the healthiness of eating meat—but health professionals do agree on a few specifics
Meat consumption, particularly red meat, is lately a hot-topic of scrutiny because some studies show a correlation between meat consumption and medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity, says Mir Ali, MD, a general and bariatric surgeon at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley. The main reasons for this seem to be the high saturated fat and cholesterol content, carcinogenic compounds found in meat that form by high-temperature cooking, and the L-carnitine in red meat that promotes plaque buildup in arteries, per Dr. Ali. More research is still necessary as all of this is still not 100 percent understood.
There is a link between processed meat and health issues
Processed meat is transformed with salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes that enhance flavor or improve preservation. This gross ingredient is hiding in your processed meat, too. Bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and deli meat, are just a few examples. Both dietitians and doctors agree that the high amount of salt and saturated fat make processed meat one of the worst types you can eat. Salt and saturated fats raise cholesterol and high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to Dr. Goldberg.
Plus, back in 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats as group 1 carcinogens. This classification means there is enough evidence linking processed meat to colorectal cancer, says Dr. Nazareth. Red meat, in general—such as beef, pork, and lamb—are in group 2A. So there is probably an association between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer as well.
You can have a healthy diet without meat
No matter your reason for not eating meat, it's possible to be healthy and get many of the same nutrients, without the saturated fat, from a plant-based diet, says Dr. Goldberg and Sollid. "There is room for red meat in a healthy diet just as healthy diets can be meatless," says Sollid. Try adding these vegetarian-friendly high-iron foods to the mix.
Here's how to eat meat, healthily
If you do want to include meat in your diet, you can do so healthily if you follow a few tips from doctors and dietitians. The cut of meat, cooking method, portion size, and how often you eat meat, are all things to keep in mind. Look for lean cuts of meat that include the terms round, chuck, or loin, Hillary Cecere, RD, a dietitian for EatCleanBro suggests. Skip the marbled and processed meats. You can lower the saturated fat content by using low-fat meat cooking techniques such as baking, stewing, steaming, or boiling, also creating fewer carcinogens, too, according to Dr. Ali. Avoid charring or cooking meat at a high temperature, but do try these tricks to get cheap meat to taste expensive.
Keep the portion size to between three and four ounces per meal, or 12 to 18 ounces total per week, Dr. Ali suggests. And always pair your meat with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, recommends Sollid. "Like most things, too much of a good thing can lead to serious health issues," says Dr. Ali. Overall, doctors and dietitians suggest eating meat in limited quantities and being mindful of it in your diet. If you notice these 11 things, it could be a sign you are eating too much meat.
Bottom line: Eating meat is a personal choice
Eating meat is your decision. Although, health professionals agree it's best only to eat red meat occasionally and processed meats very rarely, if at all. If you do eat meat, focus on your overall eating habits—not isolated occasions. "Enjoy a BBQ here and there in the summertime," Dr. Nazareth says. "But if your typical day looks like a piece of bacon or sausage for breakfast, deli meat in a sandwich for lunch, and a steak or hamburger for dinner, it is best to cut back on the meat consumption." You'll also want to limit these 50 other foods dietitians don't eat.