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The Truth About Red Meat

WebMD examines the health dangers and benefits of eating red meat.

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“The level of evidence is what people look at,” Sinha says. “If there are 20 studies that say one thing and two studies that say the other thing, you believe the 20 studies.”

2. If eating red meat does increase the risk of cancer, what’s the cause?

A: That’s not clear, but there are several areas that researchers are studying, including:

  • Saturated fat, which has been linked to cancers of the colon and breast as well as to heart disease
  • Carcinogens formed when meat is cooked
  • Heme iron, the type of iron found in meat, that may produce compounds that  can damage cells, leading to cancer.

3. Are there nutritional benefits from eating red meat?

A: Red meat is high in iron, something many teenage girls and women in their childbearing years are lacking. The heme iron in red meat is easily absorbed by the body. Red meat also supplies vitamin B12, which helps make DNA and keeps nerve and red blood cells healthy, and zinc, which keeps the immune system working properly.

Red meat provides protein, which helps build bones and muscles.

“Calorie for calorie, beef is one of the most nutrient-rich foods,” says Shalene McNeil, PhD, executive director of nutrition research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “One 3-ounce serving of lean beef contributes only 180 calories, but you get 10 essential nutrients.”

4. Is pork a red meat or a white meat?

A: It’s a red meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amount of myoglobin, a protein in meat that holds oxygen in the muscle, determines the color of meat. Pork is considered a red meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish.

5. How much red meat should I eat?

A: Opinions differ here, too. Most of the nutritionists that WebMD contacted suggested focusing on sensible portion sizes and lean red meat cuts, for those who choose to eat it.

Ask yourself these questions, recommends Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

  • Are you taking in more calories than you’re burning off?
  • Is red meat crowding out foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains?

“People don’t need to give up red meat,” says Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, a nutrition professor at Georgia State University. “They need to make better selections in the type of meat they eat and the portions.”

Government guidelines in MyPyramid suggest 5 to 6 1/2 ounces daily of protein from a variety of sources, including lean meats, nuts, and seafood. So if you’re planning on eating a burger for dinner, it should be a 3-ounce hamburger patty, about the size of a standard McDonald’s burger.

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