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Lean cuts, smaller portions can make red meat part of a healthy diet – The Washington Post

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Concerns about health and the planet have made plant-based diets all the rage. You don’t have to eat meat to get the nutrients you need, but similarly, following a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean going full vegetarian. It’s simply a way of eating that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans — and meat, even red meat, can fit in.

“Meat often gets demonized because the data we have on its negative health effects comes from studies conducted in populations that, in many cases, don’t have overall healthy diets,” says Kristina Petersen, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. There’s a difference between having meat in the form of a large burger and fries and a small portion of lean beef paired with a pile of veggies.

Pros and cons of red meat

It’s true that red meat can be high in saturated fat, which is bad for you. “We know that higher amounts of saturated fat are associated with heart disease, diabetes and other health problems,” says Qi Sun, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

But eating smaller portions of red meat — meaning beef, pork and lamb — and opting for lean cuts can help you keep your saturated fat intake in the low range. “A serving should be 2.5 to three ounces,” which contains less than four grams of saturated fat, says Joanne Slavin, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities. “The problem is that many times people eat a steak or hamburger that’s the equivalent of two to three servings.”

And red meat has some nutritional advantages. “For older adults who might be eating fewer calories overall, it’s important to eat foods that are nutrient-dense,” Slavin says. In addition, meat contains several nutrients that older adults may not get enough of.

Protein is one example. It’s essential for maintaining muscle mass as we age. Older adults should get 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. For a 150-pound person, that’s 90 grams. Three ounces of sirloin steak has about 17 grams of protein. The same amount of tofu has about nine grams, and a half-cup of black beans contains about seven grams.

Meat also offers other important nutrients for older adults. A three-ounce serving of lean beef packs 56 percent of the daily value of vitamin B12, which is naturally found only in animal products. It also supplies 36 percent of the daily value of zinc and 7 percent of the daily value of iron. “It can be difficult to get such high quality and quantity of these nutrients in a similar amount of other foods,” Slavin says.

How much meat is okay?

There isn’t consensus on this question. Some experts maintain that if you keep portions to three ounces or less, even a daily dose of meat (21 ounces a week) is fine for most people. Others advise equally small portions but only a few times a week. For example, to help prevent some cancers, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends no more than 12 to 18 ounces of red meat per week. Limiting your intake to that amount may also help the environment because red meat production uses water and land resources and creates greenhouse gases.

The one thing everyone agrees on: While the amount of meat matters, everything else on your plate is even more important. “Eating some meat along with lots of fruits and veggies is unlikely to have adverse health effects,” Petersen says. For example, having 13 ounces of red meat per week didn’t raise or lower the risk of cardiovascular disease when the diet also contained plenty of plant foods, according to a 2023 study in the European Heart Journal.

Health-conscious steps for meat lovers

Avoid processed meats. Deli meats, hot dogs, bacon and sausage can be very high in sodium and contain lots of preservatives and other additives. “In general, the more you alter fresh foods through processing, the less healthy they may become — and meat is no exception,” Sun says. Harvard researchers found that increasing processed red meat intake by just half a serving per day (one-half ounces of deli meat, a half of a hot dog or one slice of bacon) raised the risk of dying over the next eight years by 13 percent.

Have it your way, but be conscious of portion size. Do you prefer a meal with a nice-size piece of steak? If so, you can have an eight- or 10-ounce steak one day and very little red meat the rest of the week. If you’d rather have it more often, eat smaller portions. “Three ounces isn’t much, but it goes a lot further when you mix it with veggies for a stir-fry, with beans for chili, or into a sauce over pasta,” Slavin says.

Choose lean cuts. These include beef sirloin, beef top round, beef and pork tenderloin, and lamb leg and loin. Ground beef that’s 95 percent lean contains less than two grams of saturated fat in three ounces.

Alternate red meat with poultry and fish. Most studies show that poultry neither raises nor lowers the risk of heart disease. Fish has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Consider your diet as a whole. The more room meat takes on your plate, the less room you have for veggies, whole grains, fruits, nuts and legumes. “In some of the studies that have shown eating a lot of meat is associated with negative health effects, it’s hard to know if that’s attributable to the amount of meat or more about displacement,” Petersen says. “In other words, is the problem that you’ve increased an unhealthy food or decreased healthy ones?” So be sure to have plenty of plant foods alongside meat and have a few meatless meals each week.

Copyright 2024, Consumer Reports Inc.

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