DEAR MAYO CLINIC: It is true that it's unhealthy to eat a lot of red meat? What are the risks? If I cut down on red meat, how do I make sure that I get enough protein in my diet?
ANSWER: Research has shown that there are health risks associated with regularly eating red meat, especially when it's been processed. You don't have to stop eating red meat entirely, but the bulk of your diet should consist of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and whole grains. When you eat meat, consider healthier options like fish and chicken. For most people, getting enough protein isn't a problem -- even when they reduce the amount of red meat eaten.
A recent review of the research regarding red meat consumption looked at six studies that tracked more than 1.5 million people for 5 1/2 to 28 years. The review found that regularly consuming processed meats is associated with increased risk of heart disease, cancer -- especially colon cancer -- and early death. Processed meats include bacon; sausage; hot dogs; ham; deli meats; canned meats; jerky; and meat that is processed, cured, fermented or salted. These meats tend to be high in saturated fat, sodium, and nitrates or nitrites, which are thought to be implicated in their associated risks.
Processed meat and red meat are abundant sources of protein in the Western diet, so it may seem like cutting down on these would make it difficult to obtain an adequate amount of protein. However, for most healthy adults, the recommended daily value for protein is about 50 grams (5 1/2 ounces), depending on your weight, age, gender and physical activity. One can easily get that from a whole-food, plant-based diet that includes beans, peas, soy products, nuts and seeds.
To boost your heart health, wild fish is another good alternative. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings a week of fish that's rich in omega-3 fatty acid, such as wild salmon, sardines or mackerel. Other animal sources of proteins, such as eggs, chicken and dairy, are another option if you don't care to follow a 100 percent vegetarian diet. If you do eat animal proteins, choose unprocessed sources that are hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic, grass-fed and pasture-raised.
Keep in mind, too, that meat shouldn't make up the largest share of your meals. A serving of meat should be no more than 3 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards. Instead of large portions of meat, another option is legumes, such as black beans, edamame or legume-based pastas for a high-protein, high-fiber alternative to animal protein or as a side dish. Fill at least half your plate with colorful vegetables to increase vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Add whole fruits for more of these nutrients. Finally, try a one-half cup portion of whole grain, such as brown rice, quinoa or 100 percent whole-grain bread for a side dish.
If you're wary about cutting down on red meat, start small. For example, try including several meatless dinners in your meal routines each week. Plan meals featuring entrées that can easily be made meatless by substituting meat with other protein-rich foods -- like beans, legumes or tofu -- in your favorite recipes.
Don't worry if you can't make every plate perfectly balanced. Cutting back on red meat, particularly processed meats, can be difficult for some people. But even small changes can make a significant difference in your long-term health. -- Heather Fields, M.D., Community Internal Medicine, Scottsdale, Ariz.