Self-proclaimed meat-lover? If so, you’ll want to get the lowdown on how eating too much meat might be affecting your health - and exactly how much is too much.

Given how much meat we consume on a global scale - 350 million tons each year and a staggering 273 lbs of meat per person per year in the United States alone - it is no wonder that researchers have been hard at work to determine how red meat and processed meats influence our overall health.

What exactly constitutes red and processed meats? Red meats include beef, veal, pork, and lamb, while processed meats are cured, smoked, salted, or otherwise preserved with additives and chemicals in the form of ham, sausage, bacon, hot dogs, and salami.

So are there any health implications of consuming so much meat? And if so, how much meat is “too much”?

The nutritional benefits of red meat

Red meat might suffer a bad rap in many health-focused circles, but it does offer more than a few redeeming qualities when it comes to nutrition.  

For example, beef is an excellent source of protein, providing as much as 26.7g of protein per 100 g or 3.5 oz of meat - roughly the size of a deck of cards - and all the essential amino acids our body needs for proper functioning.

Unlike grain-fed beef, made from cows that are fed primarily grain-based feeds, grass-fed cows remain on the pasture feeding on grass throughout their lives - and these translate to a few key nutritional differences. For starters, grass-fed beef generally contains less total fat than grain-fed beef, including much less heart-healthy monounsaturated fat compared to grain-fed beef. However, grass-fed beef contains a higher concentration of both beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and cancer-fighting antioxidants.

In moderation, red meat can also be a good source of B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids for healthy individuals.

How can red meat adversely affect health?

Research on how eating meat can potentially harm our health dates back to the 1990s, and the takeaway is pretty clear: there appears to be an association between eating both processed and unprocessed red meat and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression.

Diabetes. One study examined the association between eating red meat and incidence of type 2 diabetes by evaluating the eating patterns of 37,309 female subjects over an average 8.8 years. Researchers found that those who ate the most red meat were 28% more likely to develop diabetes, and those who ate the most processed meat were 23% more likely to develop diabetes, compared with the group that ate the least amount.

Cardiovascular disease. Another study followed the eating patterns of 20,407 participants to determine whether there was a link between high meat consumption and cardiovascular disease. The results showed that the increase of red meat consumption by one 3.5 oz serving led to a 15% increase in total cholesterol and 23% increase in LDL cholesterol, and an additional half serving of processed meat caused a 125% jump in total cholesterol and 142% jump in LDL cholesterol.

Cancer. Consuming a single 3.5 oz serving of unprocessed red meat per day can boost your risk for breast cancer by 11%, colorectal cancer by 17%, and prostate cancer by 19%, according to a study.  Only an additional half serving of processed meat per day is enough to boost the risk for prostate cancer by 4%, breast cancer by 9%, and colorectal cancer by 19%.

What about meat contributes to these risks?

Red meat, like other animal-derived foods like poultry, butter, and cheese, is a source of saturated fat, a known contributor to heart disease. But there are other factors found in meat that can make too much of it a less than ideal choice for our health.

Conventional red meat often contains remnants of hormones and antibiotics, and cooking it at high heat over an open flame can produce potentially cancer-causing chemicals. While red meat is an impressive source of easily-absorbed iron, it is suggested that a raised iron concentration in the blood can lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes by increasing glucose production.

Processed meats are often full of additives and nitrates to improve their flavor, color, and quality, which are known to decrease insulin secretion, and contain as much as 400% more sodium than unprocessed red meat.  

How to make healthier meat choices

Despite its potential health drawbacks, red meat, when eaten in moderation, can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. In fact, the USDA Dietary Guideline recommends people who aim for 2,000 calories a day eat 26 oz of animal-derived foods including meat, poultry, and eggs per week.

But when it comes to meat specifically, how much is too much?  The American Heart Association suggests we get no more than 120 calories out of 2,000 calories a day from saturated fat, which amounts to 13 g of saturated fat per day. A single 3.5 oz serving of red meat contains 6.8 g of saturated fat, or a little more than half of our daily allowance.

If you are looking to make healthier meat choices, follow these guidelines below.

Go for the lean meat options. You will know it is lean if the packaging uses the words “sirloin,” “loin,” or “round.” Choose lean or extra lean ground beef, containing less than 15% fat.

Trim off the fat before cooking. You can further shave off your saturated fat count by also discarding any melted fat after browning.

Change up your cooking method. Skip the flame grill and stick with methods like stir-frying, broiling, roasting, stewing, and baking.

Limit processed meats. Eat meats like bacon, ham, sausage, salami, and hot dogs sparingly.

Replace meat with healthier protein sources. Beans, lentils, tofu, and peas are delicious additions that are packed with protein and go well in soups, salads, and main dishes.