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Red Meat Is Not so Unhealthy After All — if You Eat It a Certain Way

It's time to fire up the grill!


Lately, beef hasn’t had the best reputation. A simple swap of beans in place of red meat is linked to a reduced risk for coronary heart disease. Eating less beef has also been associated with a lower risk for colorectal cancer. As shown by another study, participants who ate a substantial amount of red meat had a shortened life span. It seemed likely that red meat was not, in fact, appropriate for a heart-healthy diet.

However, is all red meat the culprit? Does a lower amount of beef and pork in a person’s diet change things? According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the answers are no and yes, respectively. Some types of red meat in small portions may actually be healthy. The amount makes a big difference, too. 

To test whether red meat had any health benefits, researchers from Penn State conducted a randomized, controlled study that investigated the pros and cons of lean beef in a Mediterranean diet. The team recruited 59 participants, all of whom tested out four different Mediterranean diets. Every participant went on each meal plan for a month at a time, with a one-week break between the diets. To measure changes in the body, researchers drew blood samples at the beginning of the study and after each month of dieting. 

The first of the diets allowed participants to consume 0.5 ounces of beef per day, or the amount recommended in a typical Mediterranean meal plan. The second diet allowed 2.5 ounces per day, which is the average amount of meat that Americans eat per day. In the third, participants ate 5.5 ounces per day, and in the fourth, participants didn’t follow a Mediterranean diet at all, and consumed American-style meals instead. 

Beyond the addition of meat, each month-long Mediterranean diet included olive oil, three to six servings of fruit, and six or more servings of vegetables per day. The three diets that included beef allowed participants to eat only lean or extra-lean versions of the meat.  

Rather than measuring each participant’s “bad” LDL cholesterol number, the researchers measured the number and size of lipoprotein particles in the blood using a special kind of technology: nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology. The study authors said that they used this technology because it may be more accurate at predicting who is at risk for heart disease. It also allowed them to spot changes in a blood protein called apoB, which is linked to a higher chance of developing heart disease. 

In analyzing the data, the researchers learned that the Mediterranean diet alone helped lower the LDL cholesterol of all the participants in comparison to a typical American diet. Levels of the apoB protein, which is a marker for a person’s cardiovascular disease risk, were reduced by the Mediterranean diets as well. Researchers then discovered something very interesting: Participants experienced the biggest decrease in “bad” cholesterol when eating the Mediterranean diets that included 0.5 and 2.5 ounces of beef per day. 

Why might a small portion of beef be linked to a lower risk for cardiovascular disease? Jennifer Fleming, an assistant teaching professor of nutrition at Penn State and author on the study, believes that it’s all about balance. “When you create a healthy diet built on fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods, it leaves room for moderate amounts of other foods like lean beef,” she explained. “There are still important nutrients in beef that you can benefit from by eating lean cuts like the loin or round, or 93 percent lean ground beef.”

It makes sense that beef with very little fat has its benefits. But what if you aren’t a huge fan of those extra-lean cuts? You might want to try dressing up the meat. If you are making lean burgers, for example, try incorporating veggies into the patties to add a healthy bit of moisture and flavor. Diced eggplant, ground or sauteed onions and garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms can all work to enhance the taste of lean meat. The cut of ground beef also makes a difference, so you might consider splurging on lean ground sirloin from a meat market as opposed to lean ground beef from a grocery store.

Whatever you do, try to resist the urge to drench the meat in sauce, which will likely reintroduce the fat you’re trying to avoid. With a few culinary tricks, you’ll be able to enjoy red meat while following a heart-healthy diet. 

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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