Red meat and cancer: What you need to know
Eating too much red meat can increase your risk of colon cancer and possibly other cancers. Our dietitian offers advice on how to reduce red meat in your diet.
Research shows that eating too much red meat can increase your risk of colorectal cancer. Some evidence suggests that excess red meat can increase the risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer as well.
So how much is too much? The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week. Less is better. Red meat is any meat from a mammal. That includes veal, mutton, beef and lamb. And yes, that includes pork, even though it has been marketed as "white meat."
The less red meat you eat, the better. A serving size of red meat is about three ounces, or the size of a deck of cards. It’s best to eat it only occasionally, as part of a plant-based diet.
Tips for choosing and preparing red meat
The cut of meat you choose, and how you cook it makes a difference when it comes to your health.
Choose lean cuts. Red meats are usually higher in fat, particularly saturated fat, which can increase disease risk. So choosing lean cuts of meat can reduce both fat and calories. Extra calories can lead to weight gain, which is a risk factor for cancer.
When you are ready to start cooking, use low-temperature cooking methods. Cooking meat at high temperatures, such as with grilling or pan-frying, can increase the formation of cancer-causing chemicals. It is safer to cook meat at lower temperatures and not expose them to an open flame.
Does red meat have any health benefits?
Eating red meat, like beef, pork and lamb, in modest amounts provides valuable nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
But keep in mind, you can get these nutrients from other foods such as fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds and a healthy plant-based diet.
If you do choose to eat red meat, opt for fresh meat rather than processed, and use low-heat cooking methods.
The only thing worse than red meat is processed red meat cooked over an open flame. Think all-beef hotdogs on the grill.
Tips to eat less red meat
If you want to eat the healthiest way possible and reduce your cancer risk, a plant-based diet is the way to go. Focusing on plants, you’ll find that red meat might get crowded out by healthier choices.
Here are some tips I give my patients to limit their red meat consumption:
- Eat more vegetables. Make meat the side dish instead of the main focus of your meal. Fill two-thirds of your plate with plant foods like vegetables, fruits and grains. The rest can be lean protein like chicken, fish, beef. Or skip the meat altogether and get your protein from plants.
- Eat more plant proteins. Beans, soy and quinoa are all excellent sources of protein. A half cup of beans contains as much protein as an ounce of broiled steak.
- Experiment with other sources of animal protein. It’s OK to skip meat altogether. You can get your protein from other animal foods, like low-fat cheese. For example, try tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for a meal. Chicken, turkey and fish tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than their red meat counterparts. And they’re often lower in calories, which can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risks for many types of cancer.
- Try replacements. Reduce the red meat in recipes by adding lentils, beans, grains or vegetables as part of the meat portion of the recipe.