There aren't a whole lot of consumers, let alone mainstream nutritionists, who think that red meat is healthy. It's almost as if the redness itself were some sort of damning characteristic.
Sure, that red color is just a modern-day Scarlet Letter in the flesh, telling us that cattle are impure in substance, thought, and deed, and that we'd best stay away from them lest we be condemned by Puritans and find our head and hands locked up in one of those kinky wooden stock things.
But, of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with beef or its redness. A "bloody" steak is just leaking some myoglobin, an oxygen-exchanging protein. When oxygen is present, the myoglobin turns red, giving beef its characteristic color. When it isn't present, beef looks kind of pasty, like an Irishman in winter.
Otherwise, steak or red meat in general isn't much different from chicken or pork or any other meat (most of which have far less myoglobin and are, as such, "white") but, contrary to its reputation as less-than-healthful, red meat was recently shown in a study to actually improve cardiovascular risk factors. That's a first.
However, there's one important caveat. In order to be heart healthy, the meat has to be lean and unprocessed (lacking nitrates, steroids, cut off fingers, etc).
What They Did
People are always fawning over the Mediterranean Diet and well-meaning doctors are always telling patients to adopt it while decreasing red meat intake. Okay, fine, but researchers Lauren O'Connor and Wayne Campbell, along with their colleagues, wanted to see if red meat could be incorporated into the Mediterranean Diet without mucking up the diet's much heralded positive effects on cardiovascular health.
They recruited 41 overweight or obese men and women, aged 30 to 69, and put them on one of two "Mediterranean Diet Patterns" for two 5-week periods, separated by 4 weeks of self-selected eating.
The "Med-Red" diet contained 500 grams of unprocessed beef or pork a week (which is a typical US intake) and the "Med-Control" diet contained 200 grams of unprocessed beef or pork.
The macronutrient profiles of each diet intervention were identical, with around 22% of total energy coming from protein, around 40% from carbs, and around 40% from fat. And, similar to conventional Mediterranean Diet eating plans, both diets contained lots of monosaturated fat from olive oil, identical amounts of fish and legumes, and the optional use of red wine.
What They Found
- The diet with more red meat decreased total cholesterol by 3% more than the diet with less red meat.
- LDL (the less desirable cholesterol) dropped more in the high red meat group than the lower red meat group.
- ApoB (a better predictor of heart disease risk than "good" or "bad" cholesterol) decreased in the high red-meat group by 6%, but didn't change at all in the lower red meat group.
- HDL cholesterol, C-reactive protein, triglycerides, glucose, and insulin didn't change with either diet.
The researchers concluded the following:
"Adults who are overweight or moderately obese may improve multiple cardiometabolic disease risk factors by adopting a Mediterranean-style eating pattern with or without restrictions in red meat intake when red meats are lean and unprocessed."
How to Use This Info
Most of the red meat's bad rap comes from the way meat is processed or the way its cooked. Look at it this way: Would you eat a peach if it were marbled with fat and contained nitrates, sulfites, antibiotics, and steroids? Probably not, yet most people will greedily tear away at a piece of red meat that contains some or all of that garbage.
Take away most of that hazmattish chemical stuff, though, and red meat can easily be part of a healthy diet. And while some of the chemicals found in processed meats, in addition to the way many of us prepare steaks (indistinguishable from a charred victim of the volcanic explosion at Pompeii), might be more likely to cause cancer than heart disease, buying "clean," red meats in general is a good idea.
Still, the study brings up a question: Is following a Mediterranean-style diet necessary in order to negate red meat's alleged drawbacks? Maybe, but if you're a lifter and you're reading this site, chances are you're already following a diet that's similar to a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, and olive oil.
Now you can add clean red meat to the diet, or at least, if you're already eating red meat, enjoy it without worrying about it. The people in the study carnivored up about 500 grams of it a week (a bit over a pound), but there's probably no reason you can't eat more without harm, provided it's lean (less than about 10 grams of fat per serving) and unprocessed.
Related: The Protein Solution
- Lauren E O'Connor, Douglas Paddon-Jones, Amy J Wright, Wayne W Campbell. "A Mediterranean-style eating pattern with lean, unprocessed red meat has cardiometabolic benefits for adults who are overweight or obese in a randomized, crossover, controlled feeding trial." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 13 June 2018.