Americans love to eat meat. In 2018, the nation set the record for meat consumption in a year, when the average American ate 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry.But if the key to health is moderation, is eating all that meat a good choice? That’s a complicated question. With such a wide variety of animal proteins, and numerous cuts and preparations within the animals, it can be overwhelming to understand which types of meat are good for health and which make things worse.

Before we discuss which cuts are better than others, it’s important to take a global view of the effect of meat on health.How healthy is meat?
The short answer—not very. Countless studies have examined how meat affects the body. When it comes to red meat, and even some white meat, those effects are often negative.In a highly popularized 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers reported that higher intakes of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, and poultry were associated with a 3% to 7% higher risk of incident cardiovascular disease, and processed meat and unprocessed red meat were linked to a 3% higher risk of all-cause mortality.

Red meat’s association with heart disease was furthered in a study in the European Heart Journal. The researchers looked at 113 healthy adults who were separated into three groups each assigned a different diet for 1 month. One diet’s protein came from red meat, another from white meat, and the third from non-meat sources. The cohort that went on the red meat diet had triple the levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a chemical that’s been ­linked to heart disease by adding to cholesterol deposits in the artery wall. Encouragingly, cutting back on red meat can decrease TMAO levels.

Other studies examined the relationship between eating meat and life expectancy. An observational study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, that included data from more than 120,000 American adults found that eating red meat is linked to a shorter lifespan. Just one extra serving of unprocessed red meat per day raised the risk of total mortality by 13%, researchers reported. An extra serving of processed red meat, like bacon or ham, raised the risk by 20%.

Though red meat presents significant health challenges, substituting healthier options into your diet can help you avoid the consequences. In the Archives of Internal Medicine study, researchers found that swapping one serving of red meat per day for other foods, like fish, poultry, nuts, or whole grains, lowered the risk of mortality by as much as 19%.What’s for dinner?
Despite what the studies say about red meat, not all beef is bad. If your taste buds demand it, experts recommend opting for the leanest cuts of beef, like sirloin steak. Because beef is a good source of protein, iron, and vitamin B-12, eating sirloin, which has less saturated fat per serving, is beneficial in moderation, and can also be quite delicious. Similar extra lean options include top round roast, eye of round roast, flank, and tenderloin.

However, numerous studies have found that white meat, like poultry, is a significantly better choice than beef. A study in Food & Nutrition Research reported that eating poultry is correlated with a reduced risk of developing obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and is also somewhat protective against cancer. On top of that, leaner poultry cuts, especially skinless white meat chicken breast, maintain many of the benefits of red meat without the drawbacks, as they’re high in protein but low in fat.However, chicken isn’t perfect. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating a lot of red meat or white meat results in higher blood cholesterol than eating the same amount of plant protein. Furthermore, the JAMA Internal Medicine study mentioned above found that not only were processed meat and unprocessed red meat associated with incident cardiovascular disease, but so was poultry.

Processed poultry and deli meats are best avoided due to their high salt content and nitrites, but roasted turkey breast has a lot of protein and B vitamins. Prepared correctly (not fried and preferably without the skin) turkey can be a cholesterol friendly choice, with just 0.6 g of saturated fat per 3 oz serving.The ‘Other White Meat’
The “Other White Meat” ad campaign, which started in the late 1980s, was effective in elevating pork as a healthy alternative to chicken and beef. And though some pig products (bacon, ham, pork belly, etc) will make your fat intake skyrocket, lean pork cuts (pork sirloin, pork top loin, pork chops) can be beneficial for health. In a study in the journal Nutrients, half of 164 overweight adults incorporated up to 1 kg (2.2 lb) a week as a substitute in their diet, and the other half maintained their regular eating habits. After 3 months, those who incorporated the lean pork saw reductions in weight, BMI, waist circumference, and fat mass, which persisted for 6 months.

However, it’s important to steer clear of the fattier cuts. For instance, 3 oz of bacon has 466 calories, 12 g of saturated fat, and a whopping 1,870 mg of sodium whereas a 3-oz serving of pork tenderloin has 120 calories, just 1 g of saturated fat, and 50 mg of sodium. Just because one cut of meat is healthy doesn’t mean the rest of the animal is as well, which is why it’s important to monitor nutrition labels and choose your cuts wisely.

Lean and moderate
Though all meats have associated risks, there are ways to consume them in a healthy manner. Some experts recommend eating organic meat, which is believed to have more omega-3 fatty acids, as well as meat that comes from grass-fed animals, which may contain less fat, more vitamin E, and more conjugated linoleic acid (a fat type thought to help reduce heart disease).

Additionally, eating lean cuts is a safer bet. Lean meat reduces your saturated fat intake and, as a study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found, eating either lean red or white meat in moderation can reduce LDL cholesterol and improve HDL cholesterol in people with high cholesterol.You don’t have to give up meat altogether to live a healthy lifestyle. But you do need to watch out for certain cuts. Swapping the fatty cuts for leaner versions is a solid way to get that meaty taste, without the guilt.

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