The best and worst meats for health

By Alistair Gardiner
Published March 12, 2021

Key Takeaways

Red meat is a readily available source of complete protein, and it’s full of iron and other important minerals and vitamins. But it’s also high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and we’re warned against eating too much of it—that is, if we want to avoid heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other ills.

Of course, red meat is just one of many meat choices we can make when we hit the grocery store. But how much and what type of meats are best for health?

According to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, a healthy dietary pattern can include lean meats and poultry but should involve “relatively lower consumption of red and processed meats.”

To begin with, let’s get our terminology straight. Red meat is the name used for the meat from mammals—like beef, lamb, and pork. White meats include poultry, like chicken and turkey. Processed meat includes sausage, bacon, beef jerky, corned beef, salami, and more.

While beef is a protein powerhouse and offers several dietary boons, should you be eating less of it? Should you swap your steak for some pork or chicken?

Let’s break down the pros and cons of each meat.

Beef and red meat

Beef is mostly made of protein and varying amounts of fat, depending on the cut. For reference, a 3.5 ounce serving (100 grams) of broiled ground beef with 10% fat content contains 26 grams of protein.

Beef is a great source of several vitamins and minerals, including iron and vitamin B12, which assist in red blood-cell production. It’s also a good source of zinc, which helps the body produce testosterone, and selenium, an antioxidant that boosts immunity against some diseases.

Additionally, beef contains compounds like creatine, which can improve bone mineral density and improve upper-body strength. It also boasts a number of other antioxidants, like taurine, which is important for muscle and heart function.

But red meats like beef are high in saturated fats, which raise levels of LDL cholesterol—and this “bad cholesterol” is associated with cardiovascular risks. Research shows that 77% of Americans exceed recommended levels of saturated fat, and meat is a major contributor to this, according to the dietary guidelines.

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a large body of evidence indicates that, despite a few conflicting studies on the subject over the past few years, increased consumption of red meat is associated with higher risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and all-cause mortality.

One highly popularized study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, linked consumption of red and processed meat with a higher risk of heart disease and death. The study included data on nearly 30,000 people who were questioned about their diet, particularly, what they ate for the previous year or month.

Researchers found that “people who ate two servings per week of red meat or processed meat had a 3% to 7% higher risk (respectively) of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, and a 3% higher risk of death from all causes,” according to a release about the study, published by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Interestingly, researchers found a 4% higher risk of cardiovascular disease for people who ate two servings per week of poultry, but the evidence was not sufficient enough to make a clear recommendation about poultry intake, the researchers said. The study did not find an association between eating fish and cardiovascular disease or mortality.

Another study in BMJ that followed roughly 80,000 individuals without cardiovascular disease or cancer over 8 years, found that increases in red meat consumption were associated with a higher mortality risk regardless of sex or age.

Researchers found that increasing total red meat consumption by half a serving daily resulted in a 10% higher mortality risk. This increased more with increased processed meat consumption, with the mortality risk increasing by 13%.

When it comes to cancer, researchers remain unsure about the exact mechanisms that may make beef a carcinogen. Some studies have indicated that it might have to do with heme, a red pigment which can damage cells and cause bacteria in the body to produce harmful chemicals. It may also relate to the nitrate and nitrites present in red meat, which can be converted into cancer-causing chemicals when we eat them.

As such, the consensus is that a high intake of red meat can increase the risks of these diseases, and you should probably limit your dietary intake of red meat to a minimum.


If you’re thinking about cutting down on beef, but still want to include meat in your diet, you might want to consider moderate amounts of pork.

Pork packs a good amount of protein.

A 3.5 ounce serving (100 grams) of ground pork contains 25.7 grams of protein. It also boosts a number of beneficial nutrients, including thiamine (B1), selenium, zinc, B12, and niacin, as well as antioxidants and amino acids.

Research has shown other benefits to including moderate amounts of pork in your diet. One study found that regular consumption of fresh lean pork in place of other meats may improve body composition.

Researchers monitored 164 subjects, some of whom were told to add just over 2 pounds of fresh pork weekly into their diet as a substitute for other foods. The subjects’ plasma levels of lipids, glucose, and insulin; BMI; waist/hip circumference; blood pressure; heart rate; and arterial compliance were measured at baseline and after 3 and 6 months.

Researchers found that those who had incorporated pork into their diets saw significant reductions in BMI, waist circumference, and body fat percentage, with no adverse effects on cardiometabolic parameters.

So, although pork is not exactly a health food (especially if it’s processed), fresh pork can be part of a healthy diet if eaten in moderation.


The best answer to the big meat question may be chicken, which also packs a protein punch.

A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of breast meat contains 24 grams of protein.

In many ways, poultry has a better nutritional profile than other meats, with high levels of protein, vitamins and minerals, and relatively low-fat content, according to a review in Food & Nutrition Research.

Studies indicate that poultry, when consumed with a diet rich in vegetables, is associated with reduced risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes, the authors wrote.

“Also, white meat (and poultry in particular) is considered moderately protective or neutral on cancer risk,” the authors continued.

Various studies, like the aforementioned JAMA study, have shown links between the intake of meat and cardiovascular disease, but those associations often aren’t present with poultry. This partially has to do with the nutritional makeup of chicken, which has more polyunsaturated fats and fewer saturated fats than beef or pork. Certain cuts of chicken have more iron than beef and feature beneficial B-group vitamins as other meats do.

Studies have concluded that the increased risk of diabetes that appears to come with eating other types of meat doesn’t apply to poultry, wrote the authors of the article in Food & Nutrition Research. In fact, some studies have demonstrated that a balanced diet including lots of chicken, but removing most red meat, can be effective in managing the disease, they added.

In a similar vein, they wrote, some studies have shown that swapping red meat for chicken can help lower heart disease risks. One study concluded that one daily substitution of red meat with chicken may reduce cardiovascular risk by 19%.

The authors posited that the lower levels of saturated fats, cholesterol, and heme iron may be the reasons why chicken doesn’t appear to have the same damaging cardiovascular impacts as red meat.

Avoid processed meats

Finally, health experts say to stay away from processed meats, which are generally considered to be unhealthy. These include any meat that has been smoked, salted, cured, dried, or canned.

Compared to fresh meat, processed meats are high in sodium and can have double the amount of nitrates. Studies have indicated that eating processed meat carries a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, bowel and stomach cancer, and more.

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