6 healthy protein choices when cutting back on red meat

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Red meat hasn’t been getting very good press lately. Meat-heavy diets have been linked to increased risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. New findings from two long-term studies now indicate that eating lots of meat, especially processed meat, may also shorten your life.

Turning vegetarian, or even vegan, isn’t necessary. But as we write in the June issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch, it does make sense to cut back on red meat and add in healthier sources of protein.

Meat and mortality

The new warning on red meat comes from a study of nearly 125,000 female nurses and male health professionals, whose diet and health have been followed by Harvard School of Public Health researchers for more than two decades. During this period, about 24,000 of the participants died from cardiovascular disease or cancer.

People in the study who ate the most red meat tended to die younger, and to die more often from cardiovascular disease and cancer. They also tended to weigh more, exercise less, smoke more, and drink more alcohol than those who ate less red meat. Yet even when the researchers compensated for unhealthy lifestyle factors, mortality and meat remained associated.

Compared to eating less than one serving a day of red meat, adding one daily serving increased the chances of dying during the study period by 13%. (A serving is three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards). Red meat meant beef, pork, lamb, and hamburger. For every extra serving of processed meat (foods like hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts), the increase was 20%.

“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” said Dr. Frank Hu, one of the senior scientists involved in the study and a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Substituting healthy proteins

Cutting back on red meat offers a life-extending dividend. In the Harvard study, adopting a diet with less than half a serving of red meat a day could have prevented about 1 in 10 deaths, says Dr. Walter Willett, a senior scientist on the team and chair of the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Swapping out red meat for more healthful protein sources is another life-extending option. Six good choices include:

  • fish
  • chicken and turkey
  • nuts
  • beans
  • low-fat dairy products
  • whole grains

Replacing one serving a day of red meat with one of these options reduced mortality in the study by 7% to 19%.

Of course, these numbers apply to a large group of people. How switching will affect you is hard to predict. It’s a good bet that reducing meat consumption—particularly processed meat—is likely to score you an advantage. “Making these kinds of decisions is like being a smart gambler,” Willett says. “Nothing is guaranteed, but this is putting the odds in your favor.”


  1. Paul F Davis

    Thank you for valuing and emphasizing environmental integrity and public health.

  2. Chloe

    Totally agreed that red meat is dangerous. In fact, red meats are the root causes of many diseases such as gout, heart burn, diabetes etc.


  3. Andrew

    Great article. Cutting out the red meats can really be done.

  4. Benj

    Thanks for giving us a tip by sharing this 6 healthy protein foods. Its very important now a days to know more information in related to food that we intake. Yup I agree that Meat-heavy diets have been linked to increased risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

  5. Anonymous

    Good Post! I am a doctor and I mus add here that excessive amounts of red meat can lead to a higher risk of osteoporosis due to an acid by product from digesting very large amounts of protein.

  6. Helen Cruz

    Living a healthy life is essential. Because of their unhealthy life styles, many die. With proper health care practice, one can live a long, happy life.

  7. LAL

    There is nothing in the article that discusses drugs dosed to animals or pesticides/herbicides/pollution that the animals ingested in feed or inhaled. It takes much longer to raise a cow or pig vs. poultry, so their exposure to toxins is greater if not raised organically. Perhaps this also factors in on the health risk of consumption. It would be beneficial to compare organically raised vs. that which is purchased in a grocery store. Then we will know the effect of the actual red meat rather than the combined effects that include toxins they have been exposed to and are in the meat.

  8. Shirley

    Thanks for encouraging me to revisit this article. The men in my family love meat. With this being summer and the holiday season (July 4th) right around the corner, I will share this article and encourage them to understand when I serve less meat. I will seek to find more organic grain fed, bacon, ham and chicken sausage.
    Shirley, MS, LPC

  9. Sara

    I’ve been wondering whether turkey or chicken cold cuts or smoked fish would be considered a healthy protein or not, given that they are a processed meat, but not a red meat.

  10. Basil Leonard

    What about whole wheat. Dr William Davis wrote a book Wheat Belly. I read it and it makes some sense to me,especially when I followed it and it solved all my health problems with digestion and skin itch etc etc. Why has there been no mention of it’s publication either pro or con?
    I would like to see some feed back from H.H. Thanks for having such an important and useful
    Web Site!!! Basil Leonard

    • Christine Johnson RN LMFT

      I don’t that author or that book, but anyone can write a book! I’d look for solid research–like studies involving 125,000 individuals over a twenty year period–before I drew any conclusions or made any changes.

      If you don’t like wheat, for whatever reason, there are loads of other whole grains. Barley, quinoa, rye, oats, buckwheat (it is not a wheat), kamut, wild rice, millet, popcorn, spelt…. All are grains easily obtained in most cities and online! All are easy to prepare–I steam mine (same amount of grain and water in the upper chamber, maximum water in the lower chamber, plug it in and let it go). Except the popcorn, of course.

      But I wouldn’t (and you shouldn’t) take the word of someone who wrote a book. Anyone can write a book, not everyone knows what they are talking about and not everyone has the moral integrity to only write the truth.

      • George MacDonald

        While I am saying the book in question is right, wrong or indifferent, I would also point out that: While it is true that “anybody can write a book” it is equally true that “Anybody can do a study”. Just because a study is usually backed up with an impressive array of numbers and statistics, they often go to prove the point that: Figures lie and Liars Figure.

        For example: look at all the impressive studies done a few years ago that “Proved” eggs caused heart disease or that low tar cigarettes were better for you.

        Sometimes basic research and common sense need to rule the day. Particularyly when one realizes that medical research is just as much an industry as is banking.

  11. Alan Mcormik

    Soy foods increase the body’s requirement for vitamin D.

  12. David Terence

    Tofu contains soy and soy is no good as Trypsin inhibitors in soy interfere with protein digestion and may cause pancreatic disorders. In test animals soy containing trypsin inhibitors caused stunted growth.

  13. Edison Donld

    This is very good information. A healthy food makes your mind and body healthy.

  14. Paul Blackburn

    Thanks for the information. It will really help my diet and improve my health better.

  15. Mark

    Red meat, particularly processed red meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, may increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The more processed or unprocessed red meat a person eats, the greater the risk, according to a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. I’m a chef & this is a good info.

  16. Zakir Hussain

    Those days are gone by. Recently researches proved that expectation of heart decrease due to red meat eating and cholesterol enhancement is simply false. Cholesterol is the element that used by our body to repair cell wall. Sometimes wall damage happens because of inflammation and cholesterols remain present there, it does not mean that they are the cause of such problems. we can consider them as firemen who went their for protecting.

    So, keeping a healthier balance of Omega 6 and 3 fatty acids are required to 4:1.The best choice for you to buy wild,grass fed,forged and natural meats that contain a well balance comparing with industrially produced meats. But there is always exceptions. You might be get it hard to find such meats that recommended above. So always stick with certified ,organic meat producers for staying in safe side. How you will be sure that the company selling meat is telling truth? just go to their webpage and check out their publications, find local reviews about them and search for Rip off report.

    Also make sure that meat is addictive or preservative free , verify the farms claim about it as well before buying meat.

    • Christine Johnson RN LMFT

      Research can “prove” nothing. It can only disprove.

      It might support a contention, it could produce a theory, but it proves nothing.

    • Bill Morten

      This sounds like the view point of someone that does not want to give up meat consumption, and is looking for simplistic reasons to continue to do so.

  17. Maggie

    Thanks, that is interesting. However just one thought. It is stated the ‘unhealthy lifestyle’ was compensated for well how? Was this simply you broken down to say,the meat eaters into 2 groups, those that were overweight and those who were not and then compared the not overweight people with the non meat eaters? This is pretty simplistic. You would have to only look at meat eaters that were not overweight, light drinkers, who exercised, non smokers,etc with a like group of non meat eaters, who grew up and lived in the same environment and geographical location, eating the same foods as children.

    There are so many variables to take into account.

    I would really like to know the answers!



  18. Me

    Broccoli and artichoke are both good in protein, too – around 16 grams in a pound of each.

  19. cazare costinesti

    I didn`t know suck things about this meat.
    In our days everything is bad for our organism.
    In Romania we have many toxic incredients in our food.
    No tickets about E to info people what is toxic or not.

  20. Darrel Fredrick

    One that isn’t mentioned which is also a really good substitute is tofu. Tofu doesn’t really fall under the grain category and it can be used in many good recipes. But really interesting article.

  21. Olusola

    This is a very intresting research, especially in an age when healthy diet is very important for good and healthy living.

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