Red Meat vs. White Meat: Which is Healthier?

Last Updated on May 8, 2021 by Michael Joseph

The popular narrative suggests that red meat contains some important nutrients, but it’s not the best food for our health.

Instead, we’re urged to replace meats like beef and lamb with poultry and other white meat.

But is cutting out red meat a good idea? And is white meat really healthier?

This article examines the key differences between red and white meat and answers the question; which one is healthier?

What Is Red Meat?

The simplest definition dictates that meats which are red in their raw state are ‘red meat’.

However, we can also define red meat by its high myoglobin content.

Myoglobin is a type of protein found in meat which has a deep red color (1).

In fact, the red liquid you often see in a pack of meat isn’t blood; it is a combination of myoglobin and water.

Put simply; the more myoglobin a meat contains, the darker red it will be. Some examples of red meat include beef, bison, lamb, pork, and venison meat.

Steak is probably the most famous red meat of all, and when it is cooked well, it is also one of the tastiest foods.

The healthiest red meats you can eat are those in their unprocessed form, ideally raised in a natural environment.

How is Red Meat Good For You?

It’s widely accepted that red meat contains many important nutrients; specifically, protein, vitamin B12, and the minerals iron and zinc.

This is only a selection of the beneficial compounds we can find in red meat, and there are many more.

Notably, rates of iron deficiency anemia have been rising over recent years, effectively doubling between 2003 and 2012 in the United States (2).

As the most significant dietary source of iron, could falling rates of red meat consumption be playing a role?

Concerns About Red Meat Consumption

There are also some worries that red meat may have negative impacts on our long-term health.

In particular, these concerns relate to findings from nutritional epidemiology that suggest higher red meat intake increases mortality (4).

Furthermore, red meat has been listed by the World Health Organization as a “likely carcinogen” (5).

Part of these concerns specifically relate to the high-heat cooking of red meat, and others are about the curing process.

We will examine the evidence behind all of these claims later in the article.

Key Point: Red meat has a higher myoglobin content and it is naturally red in its raw state. It contains many essential nutrients, but some people have concerns over negative health impacts.

What Is White Meat?

A Whole Uncooked Chicken On a Wooden Board.

White meat refers to poultry and light-colored meats.

Sometimes this definition may also include fish, but people don’t generally consider fish as a “meat”, so for the purpose of this article we will focus on land animals.

It is also a myth that white meat doesn’t contain myoglobin. Poultry does contain this protein, but in a much lesser quantity than red meat does.

Some examples of white meat include chicken, duck, turkey, and other types of poultry.

For further information about poultry, see these guides below;

A Full Guide To Duck Meat

What Are Turkey’s Benefits and Drawbacks?

Chicken Meat 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

How is White Meat Good For You?

For one thing, it does not have the health concerns that red meat does, and so we often hear it suggested as a replacement.

Additionally, leaner cuts of white meat are among the highest dietary sources of protein.

Poultry also contains a range of essential micronutrients.

Concerns About White Meat Consumption

Some people feel that white meat is a vastly inferior source of nutrition than red meat.

It is certainly true that red meat is more nutrient-dense, but is the nutritional profile of poultry really so bad?

Let’s take a look.

Key Point: There are several alternate definitions of what white meat is. However, poultry meets this definition in all of them. Like all meat, white meat contains important nutrients.

Nutrition Profile: Red Meat vs. White Meat

In this section, we’ll look at the similarities and differences between red and white meat.

To make it fair, we will use the nutritional profiles of two red meats and two white meats;

  • Ground beef – 80% lean (6)
  • Ground lamb (7)
  • Chicken thighs (8)
  • Ground turkey (9)

Note: there is a full guide to the nutritional properties of all common meats here.

Let’s now examine how the above four meats contrast in terms of fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive compounds per 100g.

All nutrition data is sourced from the USDA.

Carbohydrate

No meats contain any carbohydrate.

Fat

(Saturated Fat: SFA | Monounsaturated Fat: MUFA | Polyunsaturated Fat: PUFA)

Beef Chicken Lamb Turkey
Total Fat 17.8 g 9.8 g 13.8 g 13.1 g
SFA 6.8 g 2.7 g 6.4 g 3.4 g
MUFA 7.9 g 3.7 g 5.6 g 4.9 g
PUFA 0.5 g 2.2 g 0.6 g 3.2 g
Omega-3 48 mg 180 mg 175 mg 200 mg
Omega-6 411 mg 1890 mg 360 mg 366 mg

As shown in the table, beef and lamb—the red meats—tend to be higher in saturated fat and lower in polyunsaturated fats.

On the other hand, chicken and turkey are very low in saturated fat and higher in polyunsaturates.

All meats have a roughly 10:1 ratio of omega 6 to 3 except for lamb, likely because the majority of lamb are raised on pasture with a grass-based diet.

Opting for grass-fed beef or pasture-raised poultry would lower these ratios in beef and poultry respectively.

Protein

Beef Chicken Lamb Turkey
Protein: 25.7 g 25.0 g 25.7 g 27.4 g

Both red and white meat is a good source of protein.

Vitamin Profile

Here is the vitamin content of all four types of meat based on the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

Vitamin Beef Chicken Lamb Turkey
Vitamin A 0% 1% 0% 0%
Vitamin E 2% 1% 0% 2%
Vitamin K 2% 4% 0% 1%
Vitamin B1 3% 4% 9% 4%
Vitamin B2 10% 13% 23% 10%
Vitamin B3 25% 26% 27% 24%
Vitamin B5 7% 9% 9% 8%
Vitamin B6 18% 10% 22% 20%
Folate 2% 2% 0% 2%
Vitamin B12 45% 3% 51% 6%

As we can see from this data, all meats provide a decent range of vitamins.

However, the major difference comes from the vitamin B12 content; red meat is a much bigger source of B12.

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin that, among other functions, is responsible for blood cell formation, neurological health and DNA synthesis (10).

Those suffering from a B12 deficiency (such as vegetarians and the elderly) are at greater risk for a variety of health problems (11).

Minerals

Mineral Beef Chicken Lamb Turkey
Calcium 2% 1% 1% 2%
Iron 14% 8% 13% 11%
Magnesium 5% 5% 6% 6%
Phosphorus 19% 15% 22% 20%
Potassium 9% 5% 10% 8%
Sodium 3% 3% 3% 4%
Zinc 42% 17% 32% 19%
Copper 4% 4% 8% 4%
Manganese 1% 1% 1% 1%
Selenium 31% 24% 14% 53%

Again, we can see that red meat provides a more significant range of minerals than white meat does.

However, all four of these meats are relatively nutrient-dense and a good source of minerals.

Key Point: Red and white meats are similar in terms of their macronutrient profile. However, there are some differences regarding micronutrients;  red meat tends to offer a greater quantity of vitamins and minerals.

Bioactive Compounds in Meat

In addition to the nutrient profiles, meat also contains a variety of bioactive compounds that infer health benefits.

These include;

  • Carnosine: An amino acid that may have anti-glycation, anti-inflammatory and immune-regulating properties (12, 13).
  • Choline: An essential nutrient that plays a key role in our central nervous system, memory and other cognitive functions (14).
  • Coenzyme Q10: This compound acts in a vitamin-like manner in the body. It helps to generate energy for the growth, repair, and maintenance of our cells (15).
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): This is a natural (don’t worry) trans-fat that research suggests may provide a host of health benefits. Some of these include better insulin sensitivity and, potentially, improved fat loss (16, 17).
  • Creatine: Creatine is a potent performance enhancer that helps improve endurance, muscular growth, and overall performance (18).
  • Glutathione: Commonly referred to as the body’s master antioxidant, glutathione helps to fight oxidative stress and inflammation (19).
  • L-Carnitine: Carnitine plays an important role in fat metabolism. Studies also show that it has beneficial impacts on various health markers, such as fasting glucose levels and hypertension (20, 21).
  • Taurine: Taurine is an abundant amino acid involved in many functions. Notably, it may play a key preventive role against cardiovascular diseases (22).

How Do These Compounds Differ in Red and White Meat?

Per 100g, these compounds are present in the amounts shown in the table below.

In regard to CLA, there is a big contrast between different meats (e.g. beef vs. pork and chicken vs. turkey). For this reason, the highest dietary source of the compound has been listed.

Compound Red Meat White Meat
Carnosine (23) 350 mg > < 300 mg
Choline (24) < 100 mg (liver: 300 mg >) < 100 mg (liver: 300 mg >)
Conenzyme Q10 (25) 3 mg > < 2 mg
CLA (26) Beef/lamb: 4-6 mg Turkey: 2.5 mg
Creatine (27) 300 – 500 mg 300 – 500 mg
Glutathione (28) 12 – 26 mg 6 – 13 mg
L-Carnitine (29) 56 – 162 mg 3 – 5 mg
Taurine (30) 3.5 – 4.0 mmg 1.6 – 6.6 mmg
Key Point: Red and white meat both contain beneficial compounds, but red meat has slightly higher concentrations.

Is Red Meat Bad For You?

A Man Disgusied As a Devil Eating Red Meat.

Now we have established that red meat may have a higher amount of beneficial nutrients and compounds, are there any drawbacks to consider?

The answer to this question is yes.

Long-term studies on red meat and health outcomes have identified associations between higher intake levels and the risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease (31, 32).

But there are particular confounding variables to consider. In other words, some of the studies on red meat do not differentiate between a home-cooked steak and fast food:

Meal 1: Steak, fresh vegetables, and a glass of water.

Meal 2: McDonald’s meal of a Big Mac with french fries and cola.

If the entire population was eating similar to meal 1, would there still be as strong support for these epidemiological risks identified with red meat consumption?

That said, some of the studies do adjust for these kinds of variables as best they can, and the associations between red meat and adverse health outcomes still exist. This evidence-based review of red meat and its health effects provides further information.

Key Point: There are observational links between red meat consumption and cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Red Meat vs. White Meat: Which is Healthier?

First of all, all meat is nutritious and full of protein, nutrients, and other beneficial compounds.

The research shows that red meat is the superior of the two in terms of nutritional value, with the main advantage being the higher vitamin B12 content.

That said, the difference between red and white meat isn’t as wide as some people assume, and poultry is also nutrient-dense.

All in all, both red and white meat offer a variety of health benefits.

However, neither red nor white meat are the most nutrient-dense meat; that honor belongs to organ meat.

Related Articles

Is Steak a Healthy Choice? An Objective Guide To Red Meat

8 Types of Meat and Their Health Benefits

Is Pork Good or Bad For You?

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