Reality Check on Red Meat Consumption

By Carol Harrison, RD

A recent review of the health impacts of red meat published in the Annals of Internal Medicine calls into question the need to cut back further on red meat intakes, but maybe what is also really needed is a look at just how much red meat Canadians actually do eat and is that even a key nutrition priority for Canadians.

The best and most recent data on what Canadians eat comes from the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey Data. It reveals our red meat* intakes have been decreasing and, despite the media hype often depicting images of massive portions of meat, we generally eat a moderate amount of it. Interestingly, those who ate an 80 gram portion of red meat also ate more vegetables, suggesting meat helps to anchor a healthy plate.

On average, Canadians eat 300 grams of cooked red meat* a week, down a serving a week from the previous study done in 2004. Based on eating 21 meals a week, that works out to three meals (or two dinners and a lunch), with a serving being a little more than the size of a deck of cards (100 g).

With 18 additional meals available during the week, there is flexibility to work in a variety of protein options such as fish, beans, tofu, nuts and seeds, lentils, cheese, poultry or yogurt.

A recent review of the evidence worldwide shows there is low to very low-certainty evidence, that for most adults, this amount of red meat in the diet is harmful to health when it comes to cancer or heart health.**

Good to know: Clients often assume chicken is a better choice than beef; but consider while both are excellent protein options when it comes to the amounts of iron, vitamin B12 and zinc, beef beats chicken by 200%, 600% and 700% respectively.

*Includes beef, pork, lamb, ground meat and burgers (not processed meat).

**For personalized nutrition advice, always seek out professional guidance from a registered dietitian.

What REALLY needs to come off the plates of Canadians?

You don’t need to be a dietitian to figure this one out. With roughly 50% of the calories in the Canadian diet coming from calorie-rich, nutrient-poor ultra-processed food* and 5% of calories coming from red meat, it’s clear what needs to come off our collective plates.

How does eating this much ultra-processed food affect our health?  According to Heart and Stroke, those with the highest intakes of ultra-processed food have:

  • 31% higher odds of obesity;
  • 37% higher odds of diabetes and;
  • 60% higher odds of high blood pressure (all risk factors for heart disease compared to those who eat the least amounts)

*Examples of ultra-processed foods: crackers, pop, frozen prepared foods, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pudding.

Good to know: Health Canada recently clarified what they mean when they say Choose protein foods that come from plants more often.

They mean more often than you do now, not more often than animal proteins.

Bottom line: Many people are searching for what food or nutrient to add or drop from their diet and don’t realize that the biggest gains are likely achieved by swapping ultra-processed foods for whole and minimally processed foods, and building a healthy plate with ½ veggies/fruit, ¼ quality protein and ¼ whole grains.  Remind folks that it doesn’t have to happen overnight – set small goals and go from there.


Carol Harrison is a registered dietitian who loves her daily workouts! She has a food nutrition communications company in Toronto. Follow Carol on Twitter and Instagram.