Bacon, turkey sausage, ham, chicken breast, steak—for many Americans, meat is a part of just about every meal of the day. Most of us fall short on fruits and veggies, but according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, we sure don’t struggle with eating enough meat. In fact, about 60 percent of us surpass the government’s daily recommendation for ‘protein foods.’
And as more and more research touts the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, any carnivore has got to wonder: Am I eating too much meat?
Nutrition experts and researchers have lots to say on the subject, and the overall consensus is that it depends. Meat can be an incredibly beneficial part of a well-balanced diet—but without that balance, the energy and nutrient-rich food source can become less than savory.
The Pros Of Being A Carnivore
A nice juicy steak is more than just a pretty face. Meat provides our body with a few important nutrients, including (you guessed it) protein. “Every ounce of meat contains about six or seven grams of protein,” says Rachel Berman, R.D. Your body uses protein to build muscle, make enzymes and hormones, and even create energy.
Meat also provides two essential nutrients that many Americans don’t get enough of: iron and vitamin B12, says Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. In fact, iron, which keeps our red blood cells functioning properly, is the most common nutrient deficiency in the U.S., she says. (B12 is vital for energy production and food absorption.)
A three to five-ounce serving of cooked meat (and poultry, too!) provides a lot of the iron and B12 we need, along with between 18 and 35 grams of protein, Jones says.
…And The Cons
When you go heavy on the meat for the sake of protein—like eating multiple servings of meat at a time—things start to go downhill, Jones says.
One reason why: “There’s a strong correlation between higher meat intake and lower diet quality,” says Jones. Chances are, the more meat you eat, the less fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes you eat—meaning you miss out on a variety of vitamins and minerals in those foods. In addition to nutrients like heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, calcium, and more (depending on what you’re eating), many of these other healthy foods also provide protein, adds Berman. And when you miss out on some of these other foods and nutrients, your body may pay the price—a lack of fiber, for example, can leave you with digestive woes like constipation.
Plus, if you eat a meat-centric diet, you may notice feel dehydrated and foggy, and even gain weight. Overdoing it on protein—not meat itself—is technically the issue here, but since meat contains more protein than many other foods, it can be a big contributor.
When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids, which are used throughout the body. But when you consume protein beyond your calorie needs, some of it ends up stored as fat.
The process of breaking down protein produces a lot of nitrogen, some of which has to be filtered through your kidneys and flushed out of your body in urine, which requires your body to use a lot of water, Jones explains. So if you’re not 100 percent on top of your hydration game, you may end up feeling sluggish and dehydrated, she says.
Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
But short-term downsides of a meat-centric diet aside, some research has found that over-consumption of red and processed meats, in particular, can lead to more serious health issues down the road.
Let’s start with processed meat, like hot dogs, sausage, and bacon. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), enough research links consumption of processed meats to cancer to classify them as dangerous to human health—because of the chemicals involved and produced in their processing.
And then there’s red meat. According to the WHO, limited evidence also suggests a connection between red meat consumption and cancer (particularly colorectal cancer) because of compounds that form when it is cooked. Other studies have also identified worrisome links between red meat and health issues. For instance, one meta-analysis published in the Journal of Nutrition and Cancer that looked at 14 studies covering over 5,000 nonsmokers, identified a connection between higher consumption of red meat and greater risk of lung cancer. What’s more, a study following half a million Americans published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that those who ate the highest amounts of red meat had the highest mortality rates, both from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
While these results seems jarring—and they are significant—keep in mind that they just identify red meat consumption as one piece of the complicated puzzle of our health, and that more research is needed to confirm whether red meat actually causes cancer and other health concerns.
How To Find Balance
Do you need to give up meat altogether and become a vegetarian? Not quite.
To reduce your risk of any potential health risks associated with red meat in particular, Berman and Jones both recommend limiting your intake to one or two servings a week and choosing fresh, lean cuts (like sirloin) that haven’t been processed with artificial preservatives.
And while white meat—like chicken and turkey breast—hasn’t been associated with any health risks, Jones still recommends balancing your daily intake by eating a variety of protein sources. Her suggestion: Make meat or poultry a part of one meal per day, and get your protein from fish, eggs, and plant-based sources in your other meals. Protein aside, this will boost the variety of nutrients you consume.