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Meat Consumption: Trends and Health Implications

Meat consumption in the United States has nearly doubled in the last century. Americans are now among the top per capita meat consumers in the world; the average American eats more than three times the global average.1 A growing body of evidence suggests Americans’ taste for meat and animal products is putting them at greater risk for a range of health problems.

  • While per capita poultry consumption has increased, the majority of meat consumed is still red meat (beef, pork, lamb), and nearly a quarter is processed meat (hot dogs, bacon, sausages, deli meats, etc.).2
  • Meat can be a good source of protein and other essential nutrients, but most Americans eat more than 1.5 times the average daily protein requirement,3, and consume more than the recommended amount of foods from the USDA Protein Foods group.4
  • The majority of the protein foods consumed in the U.S. are meat and animal products, which are often high in saturated fat and cholesterol, as opposed to the more nutrient-dense and health-promoting plant-based options (e.g., beans, peas, lentils, soy products, nuts and seeds).4 Typical American diets also fall significantly short of meeting recommendations for vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.5
  • A strong body of scientific evidence links excess meat consumption, particularly of red and processed meat, with heart disease,6,7,8 stroke,9 type 2 diabetes,6,10 obesity,11,12 certain cancers, 7,13,14,15,16 and earlier death.7,8 Diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans can help prevent these diseases and promote health in a variety of ways.17,18,19,20,21
  • Why does meat increase health risks? Studies give several reasons: high saturated fat and cholesterol content,6 high energy density,11,21 carcinogenic compounds found in processed meat and formed during high-temperature cooking,8,22 a compound called L-carnitine in red meat that may promote plaque build-up in the arteries,23 and the lack of health-protective plant foods in high-meat diets.
  • While there is no specific federal guidance on the type or amount of daily meat consumption, key recommendations in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines include choosing a variety of protein foods, increasing the amount and variety of seafood consumed, reducing saturated fat intake, and increasing fruit and vegetable intake.5 Americans have sufficient flexibility in their diets to reduce meat consumption while making space for nutrient-rich, plant-based alternatives.