Last week's report that women who eat red meat every day face 2 1/2 times the risk of developing colon cancer than those who eat it once a month underscores growing evidence linking animal fat with both cancer and heart disease.
But all meats are not equally fatty, and there is some recent evidence that certain cuts, consumed in moderation, may be no more harmful than eating chicken or fish. The problem is that many consumers remain confused about which cuts are the leanest.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ground beef tops the fatty list with up to 30 percent fat. Filet mignon, one of the choicest and most expensive cuts of steak, is 10 percent fat, while very lean round steak contains only 4 percent.
Health officials recommend consuming no more than 30 percent per day from fat and no more than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat, which is mostly found in animal products such as meat.
A study presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association showed that small amounts of lean beef may have beneficial effects on blood cholesterol levels. The study of 46 men with moderately elevated cholesterol levels in the 200-to-250-milligram range found that when they adhered to a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet, it didn't matter whether they ate very lean beef -- such as round steak containing 4 percent fat -- or skinless chicken breast or red snapper. All three equally lowered levels of low density lipoprotein, the harmful form of cholesterol.
The findings "give people more flexibility, more choices," said Lynne W. Scott, an assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and lead author of the study. "But the emphasis still has to be on lean beef, chicken without the skin and fish cooked without fat or with very small amounts of fat. You can't eat fried chicken."
Some nutritionists say they are concerned that the results of the study could be misconstrued. "The problem is that people will hear about this study and think that all meat is lean," said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group based in Washington. That would be a mistake, she said, because only the very leanest cuts contain relatively small amounts of fat comparable to the cuts of meat consumed in the study.
Which are the skinniest cuts? For beef, it's eye of round, top round, round tip, top sirloin, top loin and tenderloin. Choose only "select" grades -- the very leanest, according to both the USDA and the Meat Council, an industry group. Meats should be trimmed of all visible fat, both on the edges as well as in the middle. Portion size matters. Participants in the Baylor study consumed only 4 ounces of cooked meat, far less than the hefty amounts Americans are used to eating.
When it comes to other kinds of meat, the leanest cuts come from the leg. Pork tenderloin, one of the more expensive cuts, contains about 5 percent fat, according to a University of Wisconsin study. Roasted leg of lamb is about 8 percent fat. Whether these lean meats would have a cholesterol-lowering effect similar to very lean beef is unknown, said Scott of Baylor.
Even chicken can be high in fat, depending on the method of preparation and which parts are consumed. According to the USDA, a roasted thigh without skin contains almost 11 percent fat -- comparable to beef tenderloin or to an average flank steak. A chicken thigh with skin contains almost 16 percent fat -- more than the 13 percent fat found in a standing beef rib roast.