Skip to Content


Where's the Beef?

Focused on Health - July 2009

By Rachel Winters

Diets high in red meat (beef, pork and lamb) -- and especially processed meats (such as hot dogs) -- have been reported to be a convincing cause of colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Fatty red meat is high in saturated fat, which is the most damaging type of fat.

“You do not need to give up red meat to be healthy, but the evidence suggests you would be wise to limit how much you eat,” says M. D. Anderson dietitian, Vicki Piper, R.D., L.D. “Experiment with other healthier sources of protein, such as fish, chicken, beans, edamame or tofu. My red meat-loving husband has grown to enjoy more grilled salmon, marinated chicken and even hummus!”

If you want to include meat at your barbeque, grill fish and skinless chicken breasts. Both of these are much leaner than most red meat. If you are going to grill red meat, look for those with “loin” in the name, such as beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin and lamb loin chops. For beef, also look for round steaks and roasts, and choose ground beef labeled at least 95% lean. Finally, beef labeled “prime” is the top grade but is also the highest in fat. For the leanest red meat, look for a “select” grade at your supermarket.

Keep meat portions small by cutting them in chunks and removing excess fat. Combine them with vegetables and make kabobs. Serve any kind of meat as an accent to a meal rather than the main dish.

The trouble with processed meats

Limiting your consumption to 18 ounces of red meat per week is recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research. It is not recommended to eat any type of processed meat, such as hot dogs, bacon, ham, cold cuts and sausage. Every 3.5 ounces of processed meat eaten per day increases your chances of getting colorectal cancer by 42%.

“It is not clear exactly how processed meat raises cancer risk,” Piper says. “It might be because processing produces cancer-promoting substances, but research is ongoing.”

Where there's smoke, there's cancer risk

Grilling any type of meat, even chicken or fish, until it’s charred or burned can increase your chances of getting cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Grilling meat, poultry or fish, whether over wood, charcoal or gas, exposes the food to two types of carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in the smoke created when fat drips from meat, chicken skin or fatty fish (such as salmon) onto a heat source. The PAH-filled smoke coats the food, which we then ingest.

The second type of carcinogen, heterocyclic amines (HCAs), develops in meat, poultry and fish that is cooked over high heat. Extreme temperatures prompt a reaction from food's natural amino acids and produce HCAs. Research suggests a link between high consumption of well-done, fried and barbecued meats to an increase in colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancer.

Neither vegetables nor fruits develop carcinogens when grilled, which is just one more reason to add them to your shopping list. If you do choose to barbeque meat, stay clear of burning it, and follow these tips:

  • Grill fish instead. Fish contains less fat than meat and poultry do, making it less likely to create PAH-carrying smoke and flare-ups caused by dripping fat. Fish also requires less time on the grill, reducing its exposure to carcinogens.
  • Precook your foods. The higher the temperature at which food cooks and the longer it stays on the grill, the more HCAs develop. Partially cooking meat or poultry indoors for two to five minutes draws out most of the potentially harmful chemicals without sacrificing moistness. Heat your meat up in the microwave or oven, and then finish it on the grill.
  • Lightly oil your grill. A little oil keeps charred material from sticking to the food. It also helps keep fish and chicken in one piece.
  • Lower the heat. On charcoal grills, increase the distance between the food and the hot coals by spreading the coals thin or by propping the grill rack on bricks. On gas grills, just lower the settings.
  • Stick to charcoal and hardwood. Barbecue briquettes and hardwood products, such as hickory and maple burn at lower temperatures than softwood (pine) chips.
  • Clean your grill. Scrub your grill thoroughly after every use to avoid a buildup of carcinogens that can be transferred to your food the next time you grill.
  • Spread aluminum foil on the grill. This will reduce flare-ups. Just make sure to make small holes in the foil to allow fat to drain.
  • Flip meat frequently. This reduces the amount of carcinogens that arise.
  • Marinate your food. Marinating not only makes grilled foods taste better, but makes them safer because marinades draw out chemical precursors of carcinogens.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest on protecting your body from cancer. 


Hungry for a healthier diet?

© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center