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Red meat: What’s the beef?

If you want to lower your cancer risk, lighten up on the amount of red meat on your plate. That’s the advice of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) based on many studies linking high levels of red meat consumption with colorectal cancer. But how far do you have to go to protect your health? For answers about the red meat-cancer connection, read on.

How can red meat hurt me?

Concerns about red meat include:

  • the high saturated fat content
  • cancer-causing substances called heterocyclic amines, which form when any meat is grilled, broiled or fried at high temperatures
  • nitrites in processed meats that convert to cancer-causing compounds in the colon
  • high levels of heme iron, which may damage the colon’s lining and promote abnormal cell growth; beef contains twice as much heme iron as poultry and fish
  • an increase in bile acids in the colon that may increase colorectal cancer risk

Additionally, meat-heavy diets are high in fat and calories and contribute to obesity, which is linked with several cancers.

What’s the proof?

A large European study tracked participants over several years and found that people who ate the most red meat and processed meat had a 35 percent greater risk of developing colorectal cancer than those who ate the least. And an American study of nearly 149,000 adults showed that people who ate the most red meat were 30 percent to 40 percent more likely to develop cancer in the lower part of the colon than people who ate the least red meat.

Do I have to become a vegetarian to be healthy?

No. According to the ACS, a diet including small to moderate amounts of meat and plenty of vegetables, fruits and other plant foods can be just as healthful as a vegetarian diet.

What meats should I avoid or limit?

Beef, pork, veal and lamb, plus processed meats such as sausage, ham, bacon and cold cuts have been linked to greater cancer risk.

Isn’t pork a white meat?

The Food and Drug Administration classifies pork as red meat. It has the same high levels of a protein called myoglobin that beef has.

I’ve been eating red meat most of my life—why should I give it up now?

No matter how much red meat you’ve eaten and for how many years, limiting red meat now and eating more plant foods can have a positive effect on your health.

If I eat less red meat, where do I get the nutrients it provides?

Plant foods like beans, grains, nuts and seeds supply your body with protein, iron and zinc. Experiment with tofu, another high-protein alternative that’s low in saturated fat. Eat iron-containing foods like spinach, bulgur and iron-fortified cereals and breads along with vitamin C–rich foods and beverages like red peppers, broccoli and orange juice to increase iron’s absorption. But if you’re consuming other animal foods like chicken, turkey, eggs and dairy, you may be getting all the nutrients you need.

If you have questions about your diet, especially if you have a medical condition, get help from a registered dietitian.