A meaty debate: Can red meat be part of a healthful diet?

Small amounts of red meat are fine, when part of a plant-based diet

Eat red meat sparingly, avoid processed meat.

The World Health Organization classifies processed meats as carcinogens and says red meat is probably a carcinogen. Our cancer nutritionists recommend eating only small amounts of red meat, and avoiding processed meats.


With all the focus on a plant-based diet for overall health and reduction of cancer risk, and recent media hype reporting red and processed meat cause cancer, meat lovers are left to wonder if their favorite foods are still allowed.

The WHO (World Health Organization’s) International Agency for Research on Cancer just released its analysis of the literature to date and concluded red meat and processed meat are likely carcinogenic, or cancer-causing foods. They cited a 17% – 18% increased risk of colorectal cancer with as little as two ounces of processed meat or four of ounces red meat per day.

So red meat is bad and should be avoided, right?

Not necessarily. Since red meat is rich in protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B-12, it can be a healthful part of one’s diet, but in moderation. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends no more than 18 ounces, cooked weight, of red meat per week. Red meat is defined as beef, veal, pork, lamb and goat. Note: pork is not the other white meat!

These meats contain heme iron which could be damaging to the lining of the colon. Also, eating large amounts of red meat takes the place of healthier plant foods. These two reasons are likely the cause for the increased cancer risk that WHO sees. Wild game, such as venison and duck, while they contain heme iron, were not included in this analysis.

Based on the WHO recommendation, you can include three ounces of red meat (about the size and thickness of a deck of cards) in as many as six meals a week without increasing your cancer risk. For all other meals, eat white meats such as poultry and fish, or vegetarian protein sources such as lentils, soy foods, beans and nuts.

WHO and processed meat

When it comes to processed meat, the WHO recommendations are more restrictive, and with good reason. Processed meats have been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or through added chemical preservatives. These preservation techniques used in processed meats add nitrates, in addition to the nitrites already present, both of which are assumed to be carcinogenic.

In regard to overall nutritional benefit of processed meats, they tend to be high in unhealthy fats and less nutrient dense when compared to unprocessed meats. Lastly, the high salt content in processed meat makes it hard to stay below the daily recommendation of no more than 2300 mg sodium. Exceeding this amount regularly can increase the risk of stomach cancer.

For all these reasons, processed meat should be avoided and fresh meats, mentioned above, favored instead. While the types of processed meats varied in WHO’s research review, in general it includes bacon, sausage, lunchmeat, ham, salami and hot dogs.

So a meatless diet is not necessary to reduce your cancer risk but meat should not be the main focus of your diet either. Meat should be thought of a side dish and a variety of lean, fresh meat sources, not just red meat, should be used. And don’t forget to accompany your meat side dish with lots of plant based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lentils. This will decrease the carcinogens while increasing the cancer-preventative properties of your diet.

Take the next step:

U-M CCC dietitians NEWRegistered dietitians who are specially trained in the field of oncology nutrition provide cancer nutrition services at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. They focus on assessing the individual dietary and nutrition needs of each patient and providing practical, scientifically sound assistance.



ThCancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150e University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.