Week of December 17, 2012
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

AICR HealthTalk
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Is it true that beef is now considered heart-healthy?

A: Most research shows that frequently eating red meat, which includes beef, lamb and pork, is linked to increased risk of heart disease. This is especially true for processed red meat, such as hot dogs and sausage. You may have heard that beef can be heart healthy from recent news stories. One study of 36 adults with elevated cholesterol for example, compared a diet high in beef and low in fiber to a diet low in beef and filled with high-fiber vegetables and fruits. Both diets reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol equally well whether high or low in beef. The low-beef diet in this study provided lean beef in amounts equivalent to about two decks of cards (about 6 ounces) per week. The higher beef diet provided lean beef equal to about one to one-and-a-half decks of cards (about 4 ounces) daily. The study was five weeks and funded by the beef industry; it is not enough to support a change in diet recommendations. And although the drops in lipids like LDL were similar, that may not be the whole answer for heart health, as factors like inflammation play an important role. Beef is high in a form of iron called heme iron. One large population study recently linked higher consumption of heme iron from red meat with a 65 percent increase in heart disease. Higher heme iron content is thought to be one of the reasons that high red meat (over 18 ounces per week) consumption is linked to increased risk of colon cancer. For now, the best move for most of us for heart and overall health, if you want to include beef, is to choose lean cuts of fresh meat and to limit amounts to no more than 18 ounces per week.

Q: Does exercise help decrease chronic inflammation?

A: Indirectly or directly, research suggests exercise does decreases inflammation. We need more research to identify the amounts and types of physical activity that will best reduce or prevent inflammation in different individuals. One analysis of 23 studies among people who already had heart disease showed that exercise programs decreased two markers of inflammation, CRP and IL-6. Greatest benefit occurred in those who started with higher levels of inflammation or higher blood cholesterol. In a study of people with type 2 diabetes, which tends to be associated with chronic inflammation, regardless of whether exercise was aerobic (like brisk walking), strength-training or a combination of the two, it decreased an important marker of inflammation and also improved blood sugar control and signs of heart health. However, other studies of people with diabetes or metabolic syndrome suggest that exercise may not always directly reduce markers of inflammation. In some cases, it seems that if blood sugar is out of control and someone has a lot of excess body fat, the most effective strategies to reduce inflammation are to focus on losing weight and controlling blood sugar. And exercise certainly can play a role in doing that. In some cases, it may be that higher intensity types of aerobic activity have greatest impact, but since this also poses greatest risk for people who already have heart disease risk factors, it is important to discuss plans for high-intensity training with your doctor first.

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