Q: I’ve heard that eating meat isn’t healthy. What makes it not healthy? How much is safe to eat?
– Sam in San Clemente

A: Avoiding meat is no longer fringy business. With meat linked to everything from heart disease to cancer, many people have taken the plunge and gone vegetarian. Several studies show that meat consumption, with its high amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, is positively correlated with heart disease in both men and women. People who daily eat meat have a 50% higher risk of developing heart disease compared to vegetarians. In fact, disease risk increases as both the length of time and frequency of meat consumption increases. Consequently, people who adopt a vegetarian diet early in life have a lower risk of disease than do people who wait until after age 50 to switch from meat to beans. In all fairness to meat, it may not be the harmful effects of a T-bone steak per se, but the protective effects of other foods in the vegetarian diet that is the real issue. Studies on Seventh Day Adventists, a group with a high percentage of vegetarians and much lower cancer rate than found in the general public, have found that meat was not a significant factor in the development of certain types of cancer. However, these studies did find that people who ate lots of fruits, legumes, and vegetables were at much lower risk for certain cancers, probably because they simply didn’t have as much room in their diets for other fattier foods. To add to the controversy, a published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that a little extra-lean red meat did not increase the risk for developing heart disease in a group of men and women. In addition, since meat is the very best and most absorbable source of iron, premenopausal women, teenage girls, and young children – all of which are at high risk for iron deficiency – might consider including a little meat in their diets. In short, a 3-ounce serving of extra-lean meat (7% fat by weight) a couple times a week is not a problem, but gone are the days of the 16-ounce steak! – Elizabeth Somer