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July 2014

What Makes Red Meat So Unhealthy?

A juicy steak from the grill may seem like the perfect summer staple. But for your heart's sake, you may want to pass on that piece of protein. Red meat—like beef, pork, and lamb—can be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Plus, it contains another substance that may be bad for your heart: heme iron.

What is heme iron?

Your body needs many vitamins and minerals to work as it should. One such mineral is iron. It helps your metabolism. That's the process by which your body breaks down food for energy. It also helps cells grow and helps your body make hormones.

A steak on a cutting board

Iron is found naturally in many foods. It's also sometimes added. These are called iron-fortified foods. Some people who are low on iron—which can cause a condition called anemia—may also need to take iron supplements.

The iron you eat has 2 forms: heme and nonheme. Both kinds are in meat and fish. Red meat, in particular, contains high amounts of heme iron. Nonheme iron is found in only plant-based foods. These include nuts, beans, vegetables, and iron-fortified grains. Chances are, most of the nonheme iron you eat comes from bread and breakfast cereals.

Heme iron and your heart

Health experts have long suspected a link between heme iron and heart disease. But past research has provided mixed results. Some studies suggest that the heme iron in red meat may raise a person's risk for heart disease or stroke. Others show no such connection.

One recent review in the Journal of Nutrition sheds more light on the potential harm of heme iron. Researchers looked at the latest scientific evidence. Their review included 21 studies that followed more than 290,000 adults for 10-plus years. They found that consuming heme iron was linked to a 57% higher risk for heart disease.

Why might that be? Researchers suspect high amounts of heme iron—as that found in red meat—may affect cholesterol. Specifically, built-up heme iron may increase a person's LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. That in turn may lead to inflammation and eventually heart disease.


Should You Say Goodbye to Red Meat?

You don’t have to completely dump red meat from your diet. Instead, follow these tips to make it healthier.

  • Look for lean cuts of meat. These are often labeled with words like “loin” or “sirloin.” Shopping for beef? “Choice” and “select” grades are best.

  • Trim off the fat. Even leaner cuts may have some fat on them.

  • Watch your portion sizes. Try eating only 6 ounces of meat—such as chicken, beef, and fish—a day. One portion equals 3 ounces—the size of a deck of cards.

  • Go for the grill. It’s a healthier way to cook up food. But avoid charring meat. Some research suggests burnt portions may increase your risk for cancer.


Here are other simple ways to improve your diet.



Online resources

American Heart Association


Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
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