Can you cut red meat from your diet and still be healthy?

Red meat is rich in nutrients like iron and zinc, experts say. Getty Images

To eat red meat or not to eat red meat? That is the question – but the answer isn’t so black and white.

It’s a debate many have had with some being weary of the health risks that come with consuming red meat, while others say it is essential to consume for its nutritional content.

But where do experts stand on red meat – and do they believe red meat should be a part of everyone’s diet?

READ MORE: Meat, dairy sectors got beef with proposed changes to Canada’s food guide

Yes and no, registered dietitian Tristaca Curley of Fueling with Food says.

“There’s been a lot of media coverage of studies showing that red meat is a carcinogen,” Curley says. “This is not necessarily new research – we’ve known this for awhile. There appears to be a link between diets that are heavy and quite laden with red meat and risk of cancer, particularly colorectal and bowels cancers.”

Story continues below advertisement

According to a review of several studies by the World Health Organization (WHO), the cancer risk associated with red meat is more difficult to estimate than it is with processed meats because the evidence is not as strong.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

However, the WHO adds, if the link between red meat and colorectal cancer are causal, the organization says the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17 per cent for every 100-gram portion of red meat eaten daily.

“The link could be there for a couple of reasons,” Curley says. “It could have to do with some of the compounds found in red meat, so some of the heme that’s associated with the iron. It could be because of some of the compounds our gut actually produces when we break down red meat – those appear to change the cells that appear within the bowel, which could explain why there’s an increased risk of bowel cancer.”

Story continues below advertisement

It’s estimated that about 50,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide could be attributable to diets high in red meat, the WHO reports.

Eating red meat has also been linked to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, kidney failure, heart failure in men, breast cancer in women and it has been associated with rises in mortality rates.

Yet, red meat is loaded with several important nutrients including iron (a critical micronutrient), vitamin B12, protein and zinc, Curley says.

READ MORE: Eating whole grains decreases colorectal cancer risk, processed meats increase risk: report

In fact, because red meat is heme iron, it is easier for the body to absorb than it would be with plant-based non-heme iron options, a 2008 study by the University of Western Australia explains.

It is possible to get these nutrients through other food sources, like bean and legumes, poultry and fish among others, Curley says. However, a lot more of these sources would have to be consumed to match what red meat can deliver.

“I think red meat is very unique in its bioavailability in terms of iron and the amount of iron we can actually absorb,” Curley says. “So it does mean paying a lot of attention to choosing lots of iron-rich foods every day… But once you’re limiting a very rich source, you just have to include lots of other less-rich sources.”

Story continues below advertisement

So really, it all comes down to portion control when it comes to consuming red meat, Curley says.

While the Canadian Cancer Society currently recommends up to three servings per week of red meat (85 grams per serving or three ounces per serving), Curley says once or twice a month should suffice if you’re able to get those nutrients through other foods.

“It doesn’t have to be all or none,” Curley says. “I feel that we as humans like black and white answers, so we like to hear that we shouldn’t eat [these foods] but always eat [these foods], but nutrition isn’t exactly that simple. So most foods we can think of, there are really helpful components of that food and then there are perhaps unhelpful components of that food.”

Sponsored content