Beware The Beef

by Dave on July 4, 2009

As first seen in Coastal Sussex Weekly, June 11, 2009:

by Lisa Harkins, RD

If you haven’t been watching the news you might have missed it: red meat and processed meats have been shown to significantly increase our risk for cancer or heart disease. The results come from the National Institutes of Health-American Association of Retired Persons (NIH-AARP) Diet and Health Study survey which was sent to 3.5 million members of AARP in 1995. Ten years later, NIH had data for over 500,000 individuals ages 50-71, and it wasn’t pretty. Meat eaters (those that consumed up to five ounces per day, which is the size of an average restaurant hamburger) had a 30 percent greater chance of dying from heart disease or cancer than those individuals who ate red meat less frequently (less than one ounce per day). And those that ate processed meats (like a hot dog or a couple of slices of lunchmeat) once per day had a 20 percent increase in risk.

So what’s in these foods that ups the mortality ante? Obviously more saturated fat and cholesterol. There is an abundance of evidence that links increased intake of saturated fat and cholesterol with heart disease and even some cancers, such as colorectal. Also contributing to the chronic disease cocktail is N-nitroso compounds, which form in our body after eating food products that contain nitrites (preservatives manufacturers add to meats to give them their red color).  Grilling meats such as hot dogs and hamburgers till well-doneness (read: brown and crispy) can also create carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

So what can you do to avoid increasing your risk for heart disease and cancer? Limit red meat consumption to once per week. Red meat includes beef, pork, steak, hamburger, foods made with meat (pizza toppings, chili, lasagna, stews), and processed meats (sausage, hot dogs, ham, bacon, and luncheon meats like salami and bologna).  If you do have red meat, choose the leanest cuts, and remove all visible fat from the product. Cook these meats to the proper internal temperature to avoid foodborne illness but not to the point of well-doneness where the meat is charred. Note that “blackened” meats are not the same as cooking an item to well-doneness. Blackening is a food preparation process where special seasonings and marinades are applied to give a meat a distinct flavor. Some studies even suggest marinating and seasoning may protect the meat from forming the dangerous HCAs and PAHs.

Choose luncheon meats that are nitrite-free, such as Hormel Natural Choice, Applegate Farms, and certain Butterball and Wellshire products. Or better yet, roast your own chicken or turkey at home and make sandwiches from that. The NIH-AARP study showed that white meats (such as chicken, turkey, and fish) did NOT increase the risk for heart disease and cancer, and those that consumed these types of meats actually had an even lower-risk of disease. Even better? Select protein products without the saturated fat, cholesterol, nitrites and risk of carcinogenic compounds such as soy (tofu, edamame), and beans (hummus). And don’t forget to load up on fruits and vegetables, packed full of antioxidants, as well as high-fiber, whole grain products proven to decrease risk of chronic disease.

Lisa Harkins is a clinical registered dietitian with Bayhealth Medical Centers and the owner of Ideal Nutrition and Fitness LLC ( You can reach her at

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