Is Red Meat Safe to Eat?

Eating red meat is an American past time. From the famous steak houses in the biggest cities to the classic backyard BBQ, from the ubiquitous cheese burger at any number of fast food restaurants to bacon rashers served at breakfast, from rump roast on Sundays to pork chops to Bolognese sauce to ham sandwiches–the list of traditional and celebrated means and ways to consume red meat are many. It’s associated with manliness, and is part of the country’s psyche in a way that it’s not anywhere else in the world. But rising obesity rates, the increase in deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer all prompt us to ask the question: is it safe to eat red meat?

A number of studies have been published within the last decade linking the consumption of red meat to an increased chance of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer. It has also been linked with an increased chance of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and hypertension. These studies range from conclusions drawn from a new study that examined 500,000 Americans in 2009 to the Nurses’ Health Study which began in 1976 and expanded in 1989 and has been tracking 238,000 dedicated nurse-participants.

Thus the conclusions should be obvious. But if you look closer at the data, you’ll see room for some arguments to be made in defense of red meat. For one, these studies make no differentiation between the kinds of red meat consumed. Whether it’s highly processed hot dogs or pasture fed, free range beef, it’s all lumped into the same category. It stands to reason that consuming red meat that’s been pumped full of steroids, anti-biotics, growth hormones and the like will have a more deleterious effect on your health than the healthiest of naturally grown and fed animals. However, this difference is not factored into the studies, despite the obvious disparity in quality.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account and which is considered by the authors of these studies is the effect that over-cooking has on the quality of the meat. Grilling, searing, or broiling red meat may cause heat-altered chemicals to appear known as heterocyclic amines (or HCAs) which may be carcinogenic if consumed often over time. Thus how you cook your food becomes incredibly important–well done can be a bad idea.

So what should one take from all this? Clearly consuming large amounts of red meat is dangerous. Consuming more than 5.5 oz of red meat/day puts you in the most at-risk group, though even 10 oz/week can slightly increase your risk of developing these diseases. What becomes clear is that moderation is vital, and that we should all seek to consume only the highest quality red meat possible, while also being careful with the manner in which it is cooked. Quality over quantity, and with an awareness that if you can swap in white meat? It might be worth it in the long run.

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