The New York Times ran an op-ed by well-known physician Dean Ornish, warning that the dietary evils of red meat are greater than we'd thought. "For reversing disease . . . a plant-based diet seems to be necessary," Ornish urged. One week later, in the same paper, a leading pediatrician argued the opposite — that not only is the case against red meat overblown, sound research shows it can even be healthy.
So which is it? Should you cut red meat from your diet? Or can you dig in to a steak without worrying that a trip to the cardiologist is right around the corner?
The answer: It depends on how much meat you eat. Red meat can be both good and bad. We know that it is one of nature's most efficient delivery systems for essential nutrients such as vitamin B and zinc. On the other hand, there's ample evidence suggesting that consuming red meat (beef, lamb, goat, and bison) in large quantities can lead to inflammation and chronic disease. And the jury is still out on how much saturated fat — which fattier cuts of meat have in abundance — you can eat and not pay a health cost.
Now we have a better idea of what constitutes the ideal amount. Every five years, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a team of more than a dozen of the country's best minds in nutrition, combs through the latest data on healthy eating and delivers an updated set of rules. Last winter, the draft of its new report argued that red meat can be part of a healthy diet, provided that it is consumed in moderation. Moderation, according to Harvard professor of nutrition and committee member Frank Hu, means no more than 16 ounces a week. That's not a lot — only a four-ounce serving every other day. This would be a significant adjustment for most Americans, who consume an average of one to one-and-a-half servings of red meat daily. But consider the health payoff. Hu's study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that cutting daily red meat consumption to half a serving a day could lower the risk of dying of chronic disease by 10 percent.
It's worth noting that cleaving a good portion of red meat from your diet isn't going to hurt your protein levels, either. Yes, the body needs protein to build lean muscle, fuel a high metabolism, and keep you sated. And beef is a great source of that protein. But chances are, you're probably getting more protein than you need already. Wayne Campbell, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue and another committee member, says of all the nutrition issues the team covered, "protein intake was the least of our concerns." Simply making a swap for poultry or fish will keep intake steady. Both have the same amount of protein as red meat.
Along with staying under a weekly portion quota, there are other ways to make eating meat nutritionally sound. We consulted the country's leading health experts to parse the latest clinical trials and research and to provide a simple set of guidelines. They aren't hard to follow. Especially when you know that sticking to them not only improves your own health, it supports more humane treatment of animals and comes with a lower environmental cost, too. Here's what to do.