Lean Red Meat: Part of a Heart Healthy Mediterranean-Style Diet

New research disputes the recommendation of reducing red meat in a Mediterranean diet and we are dishing out the meaty truth!

A Mediterranean-style eating pattern is often described as being low in red meat… Well, until just recently.

New research now shows that lean, unprocessed red meat can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns to improve cardiovascular disease risk factors.

A Mediterranean Diet with Lean Red Meat

A Mediterranean diet is described as being rich in whole, plant-based foods while emphasizing healthy fats. A further break down includes a high intake of whole grains and legumes, fresh produce and herbs, seeds and nuts, and olive and canola oils on a daily basis. The diet also supports fish and poultry at least twice a week, dairy products and red wine in moderation, and a low consumption of red meats.

However, new research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition challenged whether or not red meat should be limited.

Researchers assessed the effects of consuming different amounts of lean, unprocessed red meat in a Mediterranean Pattern on cardiovascular disease risk factors. The study included 41 adults who are overweight and at risk for developing heart disease. The participants were exposed to three different phases:

Phase 1: Over a five-week span, participants consumed a Mediterranean-style eating pattern containing approximately 18 ounces of lean, unprocessed red meat per week, which is an amount typical of the average U.S. intake.

Phase 2: Participants returned to their self-selecting eating pattern for four weeks.

Phase 3: Over another five-week time period, participants consumed a Mediterranean-style eating pattern containing approximately seven ounces of lean, unprocessed red meat per week, which is a commonly recommended intake for heart-healthy patterns. 

The researchers randomly assigned the order of the typical and lower red meat interventions among participants and took baseline and post-intervention outcomes, including fasting blood pressure, lipids (including cholesterol levels), lipoproteins, glucose, insulin, and ambulatory blood pressure. 

The Results?

Total cholesterol decreased, but greater reductions occurred in those consuming greater amounts of red meat. Participants LDL cholesterol, which is known as “the bad” cholesterol and one of the strongest predictors of cardiovascular disease, improved with higher intakes of red meat but not in those consuming lower intakes.

Whereas triglycerides, total cholesterol:HDL ratio, glucose, and insulin did not change, all blood pressure parameters improved independent of the red meat intake amount.

The results prompted the the researchers to conclude, “Adults who are overweight or moderately obese may improve multiple cardiometabolic disease risk factors by adopting a Mediterranean-style eating pattern with or without reductions in red meat intake when red meats are lean and unprocessed.”

So, Should You Be Rethinking Lean Red Meat for Heart Health?

There is no denying the research is quite compelling and encouraging, especially with the improvements baring results in a mere five weeks.

But the data is not a red light to stop eating chicken and fish, nor is it a green light to grill up that 8-ounce steak nightly. Dr. Wayne Campbell, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, further warns, “This study was not designed to promote red meat intake, and we are not encouraging people who otherwise consume a vegetarian-style eating pattern to begin consuming red meat.”

Remember: The study did not promote endless amounts of meat, but 18-ounces of lean, unprocessed meats.

That being said, red meats are animal muscle meats that include beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. Processed meats are considered to be products that are transformed through processes such us salting, curing, and fermentation for enhanced flavor and increased preservation. Processed meats can include red meats but also turkey bacon, ground chicken, and other poultry products.

Understanding the difference is key for overall health, as the consumption of processed meat bares sufficient, convincing evidence that it is carcinogenic (cancer-forming) to humans.

And with 34,000 cancer deaths per year associated to high processed meat diets, the World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer encourages consumers to limit processed meats to once or twice per month.

The Bottom Line

A nutrient-dense, whole foods eating pattern takes precedence over diets rich in highly processed and packaged foods. Incorporate more whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, lean and plant-based proteins, and healthy fat sources and limit the consumption of packaged and boxed products that tend to be loaded with sugar, salt, and saturated and trans fats.