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Don't panic!; or, Yes, you can still eat red meat
If you follow health news at all, whether that's online or just catching the evening news on television, you've probably heard about this study, just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287). While the media has been making much of the story, acting almost as if eating red meat of any kind will make you drop dead....

Yes, You Can Eat Red Meat (Just Not Every Day)
My patients are always saying that they can't eat healthy because they like to eat red meat. Well, I like eating a good steak as much as the next person and I do. I don't eat red meat that often - probably about 5 times a month or so. I do eat leaner cuts and Dr. Gourmet recipes reflect these healthier choices.

Red Meat and Diabetes
We know that eating red meat, especially processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, or bologna, should be limited to once a week or less. Red meats and processed meats have been linked to increased risks of colon and rectal cancers, heart disease and diabetes, and death from any cause.


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Can Red Meat be Part of a Cholesterol-Lowering Diet?

Red meat consumption has been linked with poor cholesterol scores, breast, colon and rectal cancers, increased risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases. For a long time when I talked to my patients about eating healthier they would immediately tell me that they would stop eating red meat. This is because in the past, all red meats, including beef, lamb, pork, venison and buffalo, have been largely lumped together as all being equally bad for you.

In the last few years people have been looking more closely at red meat in an effort to determine if some red meats are better than others, and the good news is that recent studies have found that processed meats, such as bacon, salami, or hot dogs seem to be more closely linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes than lean meats (Bite, 05/19/10).

In a study reported on in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2012;95(1):9-16), researchers at Penn State compared four different diets on the cholesterol scores of 36 men and women between the ages of 30 and 65. All of the participants were nonsmokers who had no history of heart disease or diabetes, but all had high LDL cholesterol scores.

The 36 participants followed each of the four different diets for five weeks each and took a one-week break in between each diet. Each participant's diet was specifically designed to maintain their weight while still meeting the macronutrient requirements of each type of diet, and all meals were provided by the researchers.

One of the diets the participants followed is what is known as the gold standard of cholesterol-lowering diets: the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). It focuses on very low levels of saturated fats, low dietary cholesterol and high levels of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds along with moderate amounts of lean protein from mostly poultry and seafood.

A second diet was described by the researchers as a "Healthy American Diet" which included full-fat instead of low-fat dairy products, more oil and butter than the DASH diet, and more refined grains. Two additional diets were designed to be healthy but also include increased amounts of protein from lean red meat. The breakdown for these diets are as follows:

% calories from fat
% calories from saturated fat
% calories from protein
grams of beef/day
Healthy American Diet (HAD)
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)
Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet (BOLD)
Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet plus additional protein (BOLD+)

At the start of the study and at the end of each diet period their cholesterol levels were tested. The researchers discovered that compared to the Healthy American Diet, the DASH, BOLD and BOLD+ diets all decreased the participants' LDL cholesterol by a minimum of 4.4%. In fact, the BOLD+ diet - with the highest amount of daily lean beef intake - yielded the greatest decrease in LDL: 5.5%. Similarly, the BOLD+ diet led to a greater decrease in total cholesterol, of 4.6%, while the DASH diet only reduced total cholesterol by 3.8%.

What this means for you

Good news! This study reinforces previous studies that indicate that red meat can certainly be part of a healthy diet. The two critical items to keep in mind are: first, that all three of the test diets had a very low percentage of calories from saturated fat (this works out to about 13 grams of saturated fat - about 120 calories - in a 2,000 calorie per day diet) and second, the beef in these diets was lean. The lean cuts of beef used in this study were select-grade top round, chuck shoulder pot roast, and 95% lean ground beef, and were all cooked using little added fat.

First posted: January 4, 2012