Lean Red Meat in a Mediterranean Diet? Oh, Yes You Can!

This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner., on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, as part of my role as a member of the Beef Expert Bureau.

In my previous EdibleRx column, I discussed the PREDIMED study, a 2013 landmark multi-center trial that showed how following a Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, but that was recently retracted due to flawed methodology. The re-analyzed and republished data showed good, but less dramatic results, than when first published.

Among the hallmarks of a traditional Med diet, one that the typical Greek farmer ate, are the inclusion of olive oil as the preferred fat in cooking, lots of fish, fruits, vegetables, and minimal red meat. Oh, and the glass of red wine.
Red meat? That Mediterranean farmer didn’t eat much because not much was available. Cows were expensive and sheep worked better on the arid land, plus they gave wool and milk to make feta. All based on pragmatism, not fashion. Red meat (usually lamb) was a celebratory dish. My Greek grandfather loved roasting the lamb heads at Easter (knock it, but farmers waste nothing).

Better Med With Red

A new study asks the question: What would happen to cardiovascular risk factors if you ate a Med diet but compensated/replaced some (up to 18 oz/week) of the poultry with lean red meat, keeping consumption of fish, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), nuts, and the rest of the Med diet the same?

This study, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has some credibility.  It’s small, but well done, and it’s a “cross-over” design, so that every participant followed both the Med diet limited in red meat and the Med diet that included red meat (i.e. Med-Red) for 5 weeks each, with about a month in between each phase.
Following both Mediterranean-style diets produced lower total cholesterol levels, but here’s the difference:

• The Med-Red diet lowered total cholesterol significantly more than the Med diet limited in red meat.

• The Med-Red diet lowered LDL-cholesterol, but the Med diet limited in red meat did not.

Blood pressure improved in both groups, regardless of red meat intake. HDL-cholesterol, glucose levels, and insulin were similar and unchanged for both groups.

Revised Results = New Questions

• Is the advice to reduce red meat intake in a Med diet misguided?

• What about lean forms of deli meat (beef and pork)?

From this study, the answer would be “yes” to the first question, but the second cannot yet be answered because it hasn’t yet been tested. It’s possible that processed, lean deli meats (beef and pork) may be able to be included with similar results to the Med-Red diet. “To be continued…”

Interestingly, when I looked at the revised PREDIMED data, specifically the questionnaire that scored the adherence to the Med and control diets, at the 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year follow-up marks, there were no differences in consumption of red or processed meats between the Med diet groups and the control groups, even though the Med diet groups had a lower risk of stroke. Maybe it’s not the red meat that makes the difference here.

Limitations? ALL studies have them. This study was smaller and didn’t last as long as the PREDIMED study, which had a 5-year follow-up.

The study was funded partially by the Beef Checkoff and the Pork Checkoff, but before you make pre-judgements, it was also funded by the National Institute of Health’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue University and NIH’s Institute of Health’s Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, all reputable organizations. Regardless, the funding organizations had “no role in the design or conduct of the study; collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data; or writing of the manuscript.” The study was fully peer-reviewed.

Cut-To-The-Chase Recommendations

• Stop worrying about “red meat” and focus more on leanness and freshness (i.e. unprocessed).

• Beef in particular has a lot to offer nutritionally, especially nutrients like zinc and iron, but also conjugated linoleic acid, B-vitamins, and more.

• Keep meat lean, keep portions real (4 or 5 ounces are enough, downing a 12-oz. portion doesn’t prove masculinity and your body can’t use all that protein at one meal anyway. Good news is that this study showed you can enjoy up to 18 ounces of lean red meat per week as part of this eating pattern and still see a positive impact on heart health)

• Make sure you have it with plenty of veggies and some whole grains, dressed with a drizzle of EVOO.

If you want a great lean beef recipe I made, check out my recipe for an easy, lean, tasty pot roast here, or for many more check out Beef-It’s What’s for Dinner and this infographic on the Med Diet. The site is loaded with great, heart-healthy recipes.

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