Medical records have firmly established that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad for the heart. Unfortunately for meat lovers, most red meat (like a big, juicy hamburger) can be high in both. It is believed that the risk of advanced prostate cancer is increased with a high intake of red meat. Some types of poultry contain the most saturated fat and cholesterol. Some of the fattiest meats include brisket, ribs, ground beef, bacon, duck, and goose. Studies have shown that diets high in meat, especially red meat, increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack and are associated with a higher risk of colon, rectal, and prostate cancers.

On the positive side, meat can be part of a healthful, low-fat diet if you choose lean cuts, cook them properly, and make sure to balance your diet with 5 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and plenty of whole grains. Small servings of lean meat deliver a solid amount of nutrients without too much fat. Red meat, such as steaks, burgers, and pork, is loaded with protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Although chicken and turkey don’t contain as much iron and zinc, they have considerably less saturated fat. Wild game, such as ostrich, emu, pheasant, venison, and buffalo, is also a lean meat choice.

If meat is undercooked, it can cause mild to severe food poisoning. Bacterial contamination is another problem. Most raw meat carries some form of bacteria, and when it is not handled or cooked properly it can make you sick. For example, hamburger may carry a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria, which can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and, in rare cases, kidney failure. Chicken is likewise prone to contamination from salmonella bacteria. Severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and nausea – which can last a week or longer – are some of the symptoms that are caused by eating tainted chicken.

To make sure that you properly and safely store, handle, and cook meat at home, follow these few safeguards:

– Store uncooked meat in a freezer at -18 degrees Celsius (0 degree Fahrenheit) or below, or in a refrigerator below 4 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), and separate it from other foods. Don’t refrigerate fresh poultry or ground beef for more than two days – use it or freeze it.

– Thaw meat in the refrigerator or microwave and cook it as soon as it is thawed. Thawing meat at room temperature (for example, in the sink or on the kitchen counter) promotes bacterial growth.

– Don’t allow raw meat or any trimmings to touch any other food that you plan to serve raw or lightly cooked. The bacteria on uncooked meat can spread to other foods.

– Don’t let raw chicken sit out since it can spoil in a few hours. If you want to marinate it, do so in the refrigerator.

– Before cooking, trim all visible fat from steak, veal, lamb, or pork.

– After handling meat, clean utensils, countertops, cutting boards, and your hands with hot soapy water.

– Cook ground beef above 71 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit), steaks and roasts above 63 degrees Celsius (145 degrees Fahrenheit), poultry breast meat above 77 degrees Celsius (170 degrees Fahrenheit), and whole birds above 82 degrees Celsius (180 degrees Fahrenheit) to kill any bacteria in the meat. For the internal temperature, insert an instant-read meat thermometer for at least 15 seconds near the end of cooking.

– Juices should run clear or yellow, not pink. But don’t rely on looks to tell whether meat is done. One study found that even brown meat can be insufficiently cooked.

– Don’t char meat; high heat causes potentially carcinogenic compounds to form. To avoid this, partially cook meats in the microwave or a slow oven first, and finish them up on a cooler part of the grill.

A nutritious, balanced diet includes two to three daily servings from the meat food group, which is made up not only of red meat and poultry but also fish, eggs, legumes, tofu, and peanut butter. Staying away from meat, therefore, is not really necessary to stay healthy. What’s more important is that you know how to store, handle, and cook them properly – and safely.