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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 American Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit that focuses on cancer prevention through diet and physical activity, advises no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week. The group recommends avoiding all processed meats, such as sausage, deli meats, ham, bacon, hot dogs, and sausages, citing research that shows an increased risk of colon cancer.

6. What are some of the leanest cuts of red meat?

A: For the best red meat cuts, look for those with “loin” in the name: Sirloin tip steak, top sirloin, pork tenderloin, lamb loin chops.

  • Beef: Also look for round steaks and roasts, such as eye round and bottom round; chuck shoulder steaks; filet mignon; flank steak; and arm roasts. Choose ground beef labeled at least 95% lean. Frozen burger patties may contain as much as 50% fat; check the nutrition facts box. Some grilling favorites are high in fat: hot dogs, rib eyes, flat iron steaks, and some parts of the brisket (the flat half is considered lean).
  • Pork: Lean cuts include loin roasts, loin chops, and bone-in rib chops.

7. What are the criteria for a lean cut of red meat?

A: Meats can be labeled as lean if a 3-ounce serving contains less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.

If you’re buying beef, check the U.S. Department of Agriculture grading, too. Beef labeled “prime” is the top grade but is also highest in fat, with marbling -- tiny bits of fat within the muscle -- adding flavor and tenderness. Most supermarkets sell beef that is graded as “choice” or “select.” For the leanest red meat, look for a select grade.

8. Is grass-fed beef a leaner red meat choice than grain-fed?

A: Grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed, which makes it lower in total fat and saturated fat. Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fatty acids. But the total amount of omega-3s in both types of beef is relatively small, says Shalene McNeil of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Fish, vegetable oil, nuts, and seeds are better sources of omega-3s.

9. Can grilling red meat cause cancer?

A: High-temperature cooking of any muscle meat, including red meat, poultry, and fish, can generate compounds in food that may increase cancer risk. They’re called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

10. How can you reduce potential cancer-causing compounds when grilling?

A: Several steps help prevent these compounds from forming or reduce your exposure to them.

  • Choose lean red meat cuts when grilling to reduce the chance of flare-ups or heavy smoke, which can leave carcinogens on the meat.
  • If grilling, cook over medium heat or indirect heat, rather than over high heat, which can cause flare-ups and overcook or char meat. Limit frying and broiling, which also subject meat to high temperatures.
  • Don’t overcook meat. Well-done meat contains more of the cancer-causing compounds. But make sure that meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature to kill bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. For steaks, cook to 145 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; for burgers, cook to 160 degrees.
  • Marinate. Marinades may reduce the formation of HCAs. Choose one without sugar, which can cause flare-ups and char the meat’s surface.
  • Turn meat frequently. Use tongs or a spatula rather than a fork to avoid releasing juices that can drip and cause flare-ups. Do not press burgers with a spatula to release juices.
  • Don’t grill as much meat. Instead of a steak, try a kabob that mixes meat, fruit, and vegetables. Plant-based foods have not been linked to HCAs.
  • Trim fat from meat before cooking, and remove any charred pieces before eating.
  • Consider partially cooking meats and fish in the oven or microwave before finishing on the grill. 

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Reviewed on August 29, 2011

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