A plate of mostly plant foods, with a small amount of beef.

It’s a confusing time for meat lovers. You can’t turn on the TV or read the newspaper without hearing about how plant proteins are better for health and the environment—even fast food chains are serving up meatless burgers and sausage. And for years nutrition and health experts have warned against eating too much red (beef, pork, and lamb) and processed meats (such as deli meat and hot dogs) because of their effects on health.

Yet, there have been several reports indicating that saturated fat (found in red meat) may not be as unhealthy as previously thought. And a widely publicized review of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last fall even challenged the idea that you need to curtail your meat intake at all. The review’s authors concluded that the studies that link eating meat to poorer health are not powerful enough to advise people to cut back. What’s a carnivore supposed to think?

Meat's Impact on Health

You don’t need to give up meat to have a healthy diet—and for older adults, some meat can be a good thing—but you should limit your intake. Studies that seemed to exonerate saturated fat didn’t take into account what replaced it in peoples’ diets: refined carbs or unsaturated fats. And the Annals review was controversial, with many nutrition and health experts noting that it didn’t include the totality of the evidence regarding meat and health, questioning the way the analysis was conducted, and rejecting the conclusions.

More on Healthy Eating

“When it comes to cancer and heart disease, there’s a lot of data out there repeatedly showing there’s a higher incidence in people who consume a large portion of their diet as meat,” says David Levitsky, Ph.D., the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University.

“The recommendations to cut back on meat have two main purposes, one being to lower exposure to saturated fat. The other, and more important, is that the more meat you’re eating, the less you’re eating of other foods, such as vegetables,” says Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist and professor of medicine in the Stanford Prevention Research Center in Stanford, Calif. “It’s all about the context of your greater diet.”

At the same time, though, eating some red meat can deliver important nutrients. First, it is a concentrated source of protein, which is important for preventing the loss of muscle (sarcopenia) that occurs with age. (Older adults should get about 0.6 gram of protein per pound of body weight a day—that’s about 90 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds.) You can get protein from other sources—fish, dairy, poultry, nuts, beans, and tofu, for example—but beef “is a major source of iron,” says Levitsky. “Eating meat increases iron availability, particularly from plants whose iron is not always available.” Beef also has significant amounts of zinc, niacin, and vitamin B12. Many older adults don’t get enough B12, and deficiencies are linked to nerve problems, such as tingling and numbness, and memory loss. Fresh pork also supplies these nutrients, plus the B vitamin thiamin, important for regulating blood sugar levels and nerve and brain function.

6 Rules for Carnivores

“Meat can be part of a healthy diet as long as you don’t make it the biggest thing on your plate,” Levitsky says. Here’s how to enjoy your meat and keep an eye on your health:

1. Choose less fatty cuts. When buying red meat, look for cuts labeled “lean” (see “6 Lean Cuts of Red Meat,” below). If your meat has marbling (fat), trim off as much as you can before cooking it. Baking, braising, and stewing can be healthy ways to cook meat without having to add butter, oil, or tons of salt.

2. Give it a supporting role. “The newest U.S. Dietary Guidelines took into account that you can’t just say ‘eat less of that.’ They suggest you have to shift from this to that,” Gardner says. When you reduce the amount of meat you’re eating, replace it with plant foods. Instead of a big filet with a side of potatoes and broccoli, put vegetables, beans, and whole grains center stage. When you eat meat, it should take up just one-­quarter of your plate. In general, having a few 3 1/2-ounce portions of lean red meat per week seems reasonable from a health perspective.

3. Consider organic and/or grassfed. When you’re eating smaller portions, you can justify paying more for better quality meat. Many animals are treated with hormones and antibiotics that can have an effect on humans, including contributing to anti­biotic resistance. Organic cattle and pigs can’t be given antibiotics, and organic cattle aren’t given hormones. (No pigs, not even conven­tion­ally raised, can be given hormones.) For beef, the American Grassfed Certified seal guarantees it came from animals that were raised in pastures for their entire life instead of being confined to feedlots, and were not given antibiotics or growth hormones. However, while grassfed beef is leaner, it isn’t sig­nif­icantly more nutritious, Levitsky says.

4. Grill smarter. Cooking meat at high temperatures, such as frying or grilling, creates compounds that may cause cancer, says Catherine Carpenter, Ph.D., professor of medicine, nursing and public health at UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition. To minimize their formation, she cooks meat away from the flame, turning it frequently so that it doesn’t get charred and removing the burnt parts before eating. Pair grilled meats with fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that counteract the carcinogens. Marinating in oil and an acid, such as lemon or lime juice, before cooking may also help prevent these compounds from forming.

5. Skip processed meats. There’s a trifecta of reasons to minimize your intake of deli and cured meats (ham, bacon, hot dogs, salami, and jerky). They’ve been linked with cancer in several studies, says Carpenter, they tend to be high in sodium, and deli meats are prone to contamination with the bacteria listeria. Instead, Carpenter suggests using pork tenderloin, chicken breast, or another cooked fresh meat for sandwiches and salads.

6. Add in substitutes. Foods that have a savory or umami flavor can impart a meaty taste. Thick and filling, portobello mushrooms can do almost anything meat can. Try grilling them—just marinate first so that they don’t char. (One cup has about 4 grams of protein.) Beans, such as kidney or cannellini, tofu, and tempeh are versatile and high in protein. And using small amounts of aged cheese (such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gouda) in dishes adds umami flavor and creaminess.

Six Lean Cuts of Red Meat

One guideline for including meat in a healthy diet is to choose lean cuts—defined as less than 10 grams of fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat in 3  1/2 ounces. Here are some of the lowest-fat types of beef and pork. 

Pork Tenderloin

  • Calories:    143
  • Total Fat:    3.5 g
  • Sat. Fat:     1 g
  • Protein:    26 g
  • Iron*:     14%
  • Zinc*:    30% / 22%
  • Vitamin B12*:    24%

Beef Top Round

  • Calories:    162
  • Total Fat:    4 g
  • Sat. Fat:     1.5 g
  • Protein:    30 g
  • Iron*:     41%
  • Zinc*:    64% / 47%
  • Vitamin B12*:    95%

Petite Sirloin

  • Calories:    170
  • Total Fat:    6 g
  • Sat. Fat:     1.7 g
  • Protein:    29 g
  • Iron*:     34%
  • Zinc*:    88% / 64%
  • Vitamin B12*:    158%

Top Sirloin

  • Calories:    183
  • Total Fat:    6 g
  • Sat. Fat:     2 g
  • Protein:    31 g
  • Iron*:     25%
  • Zinc*:    71% / 52%
  • Vitamin B12*:    71%

Pork Chops, Center Loin

  • Calories:    180
  • Total Fat:    7 g
  • Sat. Fat:     2 g
  • Protein:    27 g
  • Iron*:     10%
  • Zinc*:    27% / 20%
  • Vitamin B12*:    22%

Beef Tenderloin (filet mignon)

  • Calories:    177
  • Total Fat:    7 g
  • Sat. Fat:     3 g
  • Protein:    28 g
  • Iron*:     40%
  • Zinc*:    52% / 38%
  • Vitamin B12*:    170%

*Recommended daily intake for women/men ages 51 and older.

Is Beef Bad for the Environment?

Though red meat has a role in a healthy diet, its production poses a challenge to the environment, due to the resources required (land, water, fuel, and food) to raise cattle and the greenhouse gases released (cattle belch copious amounts of methane). An Environmental Working Group and CleanMetrics study found that chicken was the meat with the least impact on the environment (though still worse than plant foods and most fish and dairy). Beef and lamb had the worst environmental impact—“In terms of our high demand for animal protein, it’s a major reason that the jungles are disappearing in Brazil,” says Cornell University’s David Levitsky. “People are cutting down the rain forest to allow grazing of animals because it makes money. As long as the demand for meat is high, there will be an environmental impact.” Reducing your meat consumption and opting for pasture-raised beef can help reduce that impact. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health