Are we barking up the wrong tree with messages to limit red meat?

This is a guest post by Registered Dietitian Carol Harrison.

Carol Harrison RD

“I’ve already cut red meat out of my diet.” A family doctor shares a story with me about a patient with high cholesterol who presumed they could skip the healthy eating lecture because, after all, if you cut back red meat, you’re in pretty good standing. At least that’s often how the thinking goes.

The message to limit red meat to improve heart health is pervasive and almost taken as gospel. Even as a dietitian, I’m guilty of being lulled into these long standing go-to nutrition messages not pausing often enough to question, why?

Turns out while consulting for Canada Beef, I discovered a lot I didn’t know about red meat. I’m now at the point where I believe by focusing on single foods and nutrients we’ve confused the public, risked being tuned out, and more importantly, distracted from the critical message about overall dietary patterns.

After all, where has the nutrient-focused messaging got us? We remain overfed and undernourished.

Consider this: sweetened baked goods and fast foods account for a quarter of the fat in the Canadian diet. It’s not a stretch to say they are also likely loaded with sodium, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates.

As we well know, many people don’t reach their vegetable and fruit or milk product needs for the day.

What about red meat intakes? The Canadian Community Health Survey data shows we eat, on average, 74 grams of red meat a day (52 grams unprocessed, 22 grams processed red meat), an amount consistent with Canada’s Food Guide and believe it or not, Mediterranean countries (Spain, Italy, Greece) where people average 72 grams of red meat a day.

So what do we hope to gain by telling people to eat less red meat? We know 80% of Canadians say they trim the fat from their meats, and two thirds buy lean or extra lean ground beef. Red meat contributes just 8% of the total fat and 9.5% of the saturated fat in the Canadian diet.  Surely swapping processed for unprocessed meats makes sense, but I can’t say I know of evidence to suggest there are proven health benefits to getting the average 52 grams per day of unprocessed red meat lower. Which to me begs the question, is it not time to re-prioritize our messaging?

Rather than focus on nutrients and single foods, let alone nutrient-rich, satiating whole foods, I’d like to propose messaging along these lines:

  • For ultimate health, swap processed and fast foods for delicious whole foods.

There! I’ve solved our nation’s nutrition dilemma! LOL. Not quite, but would you agree it’s a darn good start?

I believe a simple, positive, food-focused message loaded with tasty and time-saving how-to meal ideas can achieve many of our nutrition goals (reduce negative nutrients and increase positive nutrients) without using any jargon or leaving people thinking they need a degree in nutrition to know how to eat right. Dietitians are well positioned to deliver simple, tasty, food-first messaging.

In a series of blog posts I’d like to share with you some other surprising things I’ve learned about beef and my take on them.

Please feel free to comment, disagree (politely please!), share a resource or research link, add another point of view or just your reaction.

What are your thoughts on moving towards messaging about overall dietary patterns?

Next up…did you know that our understanding of red meat and heart health has been informed for years by research grouping processed and unprocessed meats? Yes, hot dogs, sausages and bologna were grouped with steaks and roasts in the “red meat” category. Who knew? Talk about muddying the waters! What have we learned from going back over the research separating out the processed from the unprocessed meats? I bet you can guess! I’ll share my thoughts on that in my next post.

For more about Carol, visit:

Website:  Blog: Twitter: @GreatMealIdeas

NB: Canada Beef is one my clients and I’m proud to represent the organization and the many professional beef-farming families across Canada.


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