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Red meat made health headlines once again last week after a new study was published in the journal Circulation. "Cut back on red meat" is not a new message but this new research shows that not all red meat is the same. For years, much of the research on red meat has not looked at the difference between types of red meat. Hamburgers, steak, sausage, and bacon were often lumped in together in the analyses. The study in the May 17 edition of Circulation looked at 20 past studies and analyzed differences between fresh red meat like hamburger and steak and processed red meat like bacon and sausage. The difference between the two seems to be important - although how important remains a question.

Good News/Bad News.    The good news is that unprocessed red meat was not related to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. The bad news is that processed meat was - but the relationship was not huge. Processed meat was associated with a 42% increased risk of heart disease and a 19% increased risk of diabetes. Neither of those numbers is a huge increase but in a country where heart disease is our major killer, small changes can make a big difference. An especially interesting finding was that the difference between the two types of meat was not related to total fat or saturated fat content.  So what is it about processed meats makes them unhealthy? The researchers don't know. It could be sodium. It could be nitrates. It could be something else. That's where further research will come in.

No Changes in Advice - Yet.  Will you see any changes in nutritional guidelines because of this research? Not likely. The researchers describe this research as the stepping off point for more studies that more precisely evaluate the relationship between types of red meat and heart disease and diabetes. And remember, there still seems to be a relationship between all red meat and colon cancer so we should not use this research as an excuse to pig out on burgers and steaks!

What You Should Do. For now, continue to follow the guidelines for eating red meat:

  • Eat at least 3.5 Ounces of Fatty Fish Twice a Week. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats lower the risk of heart disease. Check out the UAB Nutrition Trends article on omega-3 fatty acids, Fish Facts, for more information.
  • Limit Red Meat. If you can, limit red meat to 3 ounces (the size of a deck of cards) three times a week. This may be a difficult recommendation for some so you may want to keep a food record to see how often you're eating red mean and work on cutting back each week.
  • Choose Lean Cuts of Meat. Chicken without the skin and lean cuts of red meat like "loin" and "round" cuts are healthiest. Cook your meats in healthy ways like baking or making a stir-fry with vegetable oils and a variety of vegetables.
  • Make Some Meals Vegetarian. Make some meals vegetarian. Cutting back on how much meat you eat in general is a good idea. You don't need to go all vegetarian to reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Just making a few meals a week meat-free can make a difference. You can find more information about meatless meals at:

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor of Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham