It’s summer—time to enjoy the weather by firing up the backyard grill on a warm summer night. Some suggest that this activity is fraught with danger, warning that the hamburger you make on the grill will lead directly and inevitably to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Not so! While red meat is certainly not our healthiest food, an occasional serving does not condemn you to a life shortened by disease.
The links between red meat and disease come from observational studies. Including impressive numbers of people (up to 1 million), these studies of red meat seek to determine whether meat consumption is associated with disease. Recent studies do find associations between eating red meat and the development of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These conclusions tend to generate sensational headlines stating that red meat causes serious health problems. In fact, the studies do not support such sweeping conclusions. They note an association, but cannot prove causality. People who eat lots of red meat do tend to develop health problems. But, compared to those who eat more vegetables and fish, the meat eaters are more likely to smoke and less likely to exercise. So it could be that other lifestyle factors contribute to the development of disease.
Red meat is high in saturated fat. A high intake of saturated fat tends to increase LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), and this is associated with the development of heart disease. A steady diet of red meat can therefore increase your LDL cholesterol. But an occasional serving of red meat is not going to cause significant elevation of your LDL cholesterol.
Avoid Processed Red Meats
Although we are not against lean cuts of red meat, we have strong opinions when it comes to processed red meats like hot dogs, salami and bologna. These foods are bad for you! Processed red meat is meat that has been smoked, cured, salted or subjected to chemical preservatives such as nitrates: think hot dogs, pepperoni and bologna. What is the problem with processed red meat? The issue here goes beyond saturated fat. In fact, compared to unprocessed red meats, processed meats have similar contents of saturated fat and cholesterol. The key difference is that they have four times as much sodium (600 versus 150 my per serving) and 50 percent more nitrates and nitrites. The sodium can increase blood pressure, while the nitrates may promote atherosclerosis and diabetes.
In general, you should limit red meats because of their high saturated fat content; try to avoid processed red meats altogether. An occasional meal that contains a reasonable quantity of unprocessed red meat (a 6- to 9- ounce steak, not a 22-ounce rib eye), is unlikely to cause harm. But as a general principle, try to substitute healthier sources of protein for red meat. Focus on fish, poultry, soy, nuts and beans; regular intake of these foods is associated with good cardiovascular health.
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