Why Is Red Meat Bad for Your Heart?

Your heart health depends largely on the diet you follow. Diets high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar can significantly increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and related complications if you aren’t careful.

But there’s a lot of confusion out there about what is and isn’t safe to eat when you’re trying to protect your heart. Red meat, for example, is just one of many foods you have to watch out for. But maybe it isn’t as bad as you’ve been told — at least, not all of it.

Here’s the deal with red meat — including how often you should eat it, which types you should consume with caution, and how this type of meat might affect your heart.

Is red meat unhealthy?

Grilled steak

Grilled steak | iStock.com/Magone

Some studies suggest that red meat consumption increases your risk of dying. This is, technically, true. But an article from Harvard Health Publishing points out that just because something elevates relative risk does not mean you have to avoid it altogether.

The potential “dangers” of red meat might relate to any combination of factors — everything from its saturated fat content to cholesterol to sodium. It’s possible that red meat isn’t the problem, but instead the way it’s cooked or prepared increases the risk of certain health issues.

Whether or not red meat poses health risks actually also depends on the types of red meat you are eating. Processed red meat (such as sausage and hot dogs) doesn’t provide the same health benefits or harms as unprocessed red meat (pork, beef, or steak).

How much you eat might also make a difference. Experts suggest eating no more than six 3-ounce servings of red meat per week. So if you’re eating red meat more than once a day, you may benefit from cutting back.

Eating red meat can be good for you — it contains multiple B vitamins, iron, and high-quality protein. But you have to be careful which types you purchase and consume.

Is red meat bad for your heart?

For a long time, experts thought saturated fat was to blame for most cases of heart disease. It turns out this isn’t entirely accurate.

Research shows that eating too much of this type of fat can increase your risk of many health problems. But it might depend on where you’re getting your saturated fat from and the other foods you’re incorporating into your diet.

All foods derived from animal sources contain saturated fat. Cows, pigs, and other animals need it to survive just like we do.

The difference between the saturated fat in red meat and the saturated fat found in junk food, for example, is that meat, on its own, is high in protein, low in sodium, and carb-free. Eating foods high in added sugars and salt, low in protein, and high in saturated fat hurts your health — and your heart — a lot more than the occasional pork chop.

Though there are studies that suggest a possible link between red meat and heart disease, it’s important to remember that not all meats are created equal. One large review of over a dozen studies found that there is no association between unprocessed meat and heart disease.

Some red meat is bad for your heart because it lacks significant health benefits. Other types just have too much of a certain nutrient — and too much is never a good thing.

Types of red meat to avoid

Hot dog

Hot dog | iStock/Getty Images

The types of red meat you should avoid tend to be the most heavily processed. The more it’s manipulated before it even hits the grocery store shelf, the more health risks it contains. You should do your best to eat only a few servings per week at most of:

  • Cured bacon (especially if it’s fried)
  • Beef jerky
  • Deli meat
  • Canned meat
  • Hot dogs and sausages.

Experts also advise that limiting red meat consumption and replacing a lot of those calories with plant-based foods can significantly improve heart health.

You can even think of this as a canceling-out effect. If you’re on board with the idea that eating red meat can harm your heart, also consider that everything else on your plate can potentially outweigh those health risks.

For example, pairing a pork chop with brown rice and roasted vegetables would provide essential nutrients and count as a healthy meal despite the potential risks that might come with cooking the steak.

Is red meat bad for your heart? It depends on what — and how much — you’re eating. What you eat with your meat can also make a difference. Choose wisely.