Americans consume red meat from a variety of foods, creating opportunities to introduce meat-free substitutions

The typical American diet is high in red and processed meat, contributing to health risks and raising concerns for environmental sustainability. A study published this week in Public Health Nutrition used data from national diet surveys to look at which specific types of foods make up the bulk of U.S. red and processed meat intake among adolescents and adults.

Vacuum-sealed, sliced red processed meat in a store shelfThe authors found that consumption is not dominated by any single food type. Americans most commonly consume unprocessed red meat in the form of burgers, steaks, and mixed dishes such as meatloaf, lasagna, or shepherd’s pie. For processed meats, the most widely eaten forms were deli cold cuts, sausages and frankfurters, pizza, and bacon.

The authors view this variety of food sources as an opportunity, in terms of efforts to reduce average intake or red and processed meats — currently around 450g per adult each week — towards the recommended limit of 100g per week.

“The ways in which Americans eat meat are quite diverse,” said Sarah Frank, PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill and the study’s lead author. “While meat-centric foods like burgers are popular, we found that a lot of meat is actually consumed in mixed dishes like casseroles. This is exciting for behavior and policy work because it means there are a lot of opportunities to promote healthier, more sustainable, plant-based options into the diet beyond, for example, substitutes for a large cut of meat.

Dr. Lindsay Jaacks, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Chancellor’s Fellow at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, adds: “Unlike dairy, for which more than 50% of intake comes from just one food group (milk), red meat is highly variable. This means there are a lot more opportunities to promote alternatives to red meat. But we need to be careful and closely monitor these alternatives to make sure environmental gains are not traded at the cost of public health.”

The authors note that for adolescents, concern about climate change might provide more inspiration to eat less meat. Adolescents were found to consume most of their meat from burgers and pizzas purchased at fast-food outlets.

This study was funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health program.


Sarah Frank headshot thumbnail
Sarah Frank, MS
Lindsey Smith Taillie headshot
Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD
Lindsay Jaacks, PhD