First, red meat started taking the blame for chronic health conditions such as heart disease. Then, all meat followed suit. Now, high-fat, low-carb diets have brought beef and pork back into the spotlight as something that might actually be good for you. Maybe.
When it comes to heart disease, high blood pressure, and related conditions, diet does matter. But how much does your love (or avoidance) of meat really influence your health?
Is meat the reason so many people have heart disease? Could you benefit from eating less meat — or cutting it out altogether? Read on to learn more about which meats are best — and worst — for your heart and overall health.
Is meat bad for you?
Burger | Dizelen/iStock/Getty Images
Meat naturally contains saturated fat, meaning it’s something present in the product without any processing. When you hear the term “saturated fat,” you’re likely to immediately assume anything associated with it must be bad. This isn’t technically true.
Plenty of foods — including many dairy and meat products — are good for you, despite containing saturated fat.
Does saturated fat cause heart disease? Honestly, health experts still have no idea. The issue is that many foods high in saturated fat these days are highly processed, and are also high in calories, sodium, and other ingredients that — collectively — can increase your risk of developing many different diseases.
Knowing all this, it’s probably not the saturated fat in beef or steak that’s bad for you. It’s more likely the real problems with your meat have to do with how they are prepared and/or served and what you eat (or don’t eat) with them.
A healthy meaty meal: Grilled chicken seasoned with herbs, served with vegetables and brown rice.
An unhealthy meaty meal: Fried chicken served with potato chips and macaroni salad.
Both meals feature chicken and two side dishes. But the difference in the preparation of each dish as well as what it’s served with makes one great for you — and the other, not so much.
Meat as a collective group of animal-based products can be part of a heart-healthy diet. It’s carb-free, high in protein, and an excellent source of energy. But there are still potential benefits to eating meat less often than you probably do now.
The benefits of eating less meat
However you feel about vegetarian or plant-based diets, in many ways, they’re better for your heart than a meat-heavy lifestyle.
Studies have shown that diets that focus mostly or entirely on plants can lead to lower rates of heart disease. Why? Probably for a number of different factors — one being that plants contain fiber, which helps lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
But these diets also tend to discourage the consumption of large amounts of processed foods — including processed meats.
When you’re eating plenty of fiber and protein — something that’s much easier to do when you’re mostly eating plant-based foods — you’re less likely to overeat or even crave processed junk food. Fiber is extremely filling, and protein may promote satiety (that “full” feeling brought on by hormones that tell your brain you don’t want to eat more food).
Filling your plate with a healthy combination of animal and plant proteins (grilled chicken, veggies, rice) discourages you from chowing down on fried meat and associated unhealthy sides. It’s no guarantee, but if you can get into the habit of incorporating both — more plants than meat — you might be better off.
The worst meats you can eat
Fried bacon | HandmadePictures/iStock/Getty Images
Depending on how you look at it, the worst meats for your health aren’t “meat” the way it’s meant to be consumed. Technically, there’s nothing nutritionally wrong with a chicken breast, a beef steak, or a grilled pork chop.
But the same can’t usually be said for hot dogs, fast food burgers, or similar meat products. You might want to consider cutting back on:
- Bacon and sausage, which are usually highly processed
- Processed, salted meats such as beef jerky
- Hot dogs (you don’t even want to know what’s really in those)
- Deli ham and other highly processed lunch meats.
This isn’t to say you can never have bacon or that the occasional sandwich from your local sub shop is completely off-limits. It’s just not a good idea to start every morning with multiple servings of bacon or snack on beef jerky every night while watching TV — especially if you’re minding your heart health.
The best meats for your health
If you really think about it, we’ve been eating meat for a long time — it’s been part of a healthy diet for many years, and probably isn’t to blame for the world’s deadliest health problems. You just have to choose your meats wisely.
And if you’re concerned about the ethical or environmental implications of meat, you can always take these things into consideration when deciding which means to buy from where — if any at all.
But if you want to continue eating meat — maybe just less of it — there are plenty of heart-healthy options out there for you.
In terms of calorie, protein, and fat content, these are the best meats for your health:
- Chicken — preferably grilled, baked, or lightly sauteed
- Lean beef
- Fish — especially fatty fish such as salmon
- Pork tenderloin.
The leanest cuts of meat are always going to be your best option. However, you can always trim the fat after cooking if you want to savor more of the flavor.
Meat gets a bad rap. Years of heart disease research pushed the blame on all types of saturated fat when many different factors likely play a role in the development of heart disease and related conditions.
You don’t have to swear off meat forever. But your heart may benefit from indulging less often and making smarter choices about which types of meat you consume.