What’s the Beef? Demystifying Diet Advice Around Red Meat.

Diet trends fall in and out of fashion more than, well, fashion – one day you’re wearing bellbottoms and living on grapefruit, the next you’re eating a high-fat diet in skinny jeans. It can be hard to know which advice will endure the test of time, especially when it comes to a diet staple that’s been equal parts vilified and glorified over the last several decades: red meat.

Fleshing out the history of red meat

Humans have been eating beef, the protein-dense and nutrient-rich flesh of cattle, since prehistoric times. It’s been a staple food in many cultures for millennia, but let’s take a closer look at beef’s more recent history in the American diet over the last century.

Beef became a symbol of prosperity in America after World War 2, with many post-war households proudly serving up classic meat-and-potatoes meals. That golden age of beef consumption took a hit in subsequent decades, with studies coming out in the 1950s about effects on heart health, in the 1970s about cancer causation, and in the 1990s about the general ill effects of fat.

Then, the tide seemed to turn. In the early 2000s, the Atkins diet pinned America’s worsening obesity epidemic on carbohydrates rather than protein sources like beef, and the 2010s’ Keto diet further elevated red meat to the top of the food chain as a vital source of high-fat protein. The crowning touch was a 2019 report in a respected medical journal that assured Americans that it was fine to continue with a diet rich in red meat.

But then came the counterreaction, with numerous other journals and medical associations pushing back on the study, faulting everything from their research methods to their potential conflicts of interest. So then what is a well-intentioned eater in search of a “healthy” diet to do, when it comes to red meat?

All things in moderation

As with most trends that have vocal proponents on both sides, the answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. Even a specialist in Preventative Cardiology – the science of averting heart disease before it begins – takes this middle-ground stance, advising a diet low in red meat, but not exclusionary.

“According to most scientific studies, people who eat more red meat have a higher risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Stanley Hazen in this Cleveland Clinic article. “Even though I’m begrudgingly a meat lover, I advise people to reduce their heart risk by eating less red meat.”

Here’s how to put that advice into practice in your own diet:

  • Quantity: Forget about a sizzling 16-ouncer – the recommended serving size for beef is just three to four ounces, which is roughly the size of a deck of playing cards.
  • Frequency: experts suggest eating beef no more than three times per week.
  • Quality: look for lean cuts (such as strip, flank, and sirloin), and consider choosing grass-fed beef when possible for its higher nutrient content and lower saturated fat. Grass-fed is typically more expensive than grain-fed, but your new commitment to smaller portion sizes and less frequent consumption should offset the cost.
  • Cooking method: although grilling remains a favorite technique for cooking beef, the high heat can produce some rather unappetizing health effects in the form of toxic compounds. Consider lower, slower methods like roasting, baking, or stewing.

Armed with a bit of moderation and common sense, you’ll be prepared to weather red meat trends wherever they take us in the coming decades. As for the bell-bottoms, stash them in the attic – we surely haven’t seen the last of them.