Is Red Meat Bad For You, or Good? An Objective Look
Red meat is a controversial food. Or at least it seems to be based on the many opinions we came across while researching this article. Is it really though?
Firstly, what is red meat? Red meat refers to all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.
Since this is a health and fitness website, these are the top priorities for our content. A lot of opinions on the matter seem to make ‘appeal to nature’ fallacies, maintaining that ‘if something is natural, it must be good’.
We’re not interested in what’s ‘natural’. We’re interested in what’s healthy. Not to mention that ‘natural’ is a pretty subjective term these days. One could argue that ‘humans have always eaten red meat’ or that it wouldn’t have been possible for us to evolve without it but our interest lies in whether it’s good for you. Let’s get to it: –
Differences between Meat produced historically versus today:
Most people would agree that there is a massive difference between the meat produced today versus what was available to some of our ancestors. This is true owing to factors such as climate, pollution, quality of grass/feed as well as water, all of which have undeniably changed considerably. It is especially true for some of the more processed meat available today which goes through additional layers of changes.
Let’s distinguish and break-down what’s available today: –
*Conventional Red Meat:
This represents the largest amount of red meat produced and therefore has the largest probability of ending up on your plate.
The animals are most likely raised in factory farms in often crowded and sub-par conditions when it comes to hygiene and general care. They are often pumped full of antibiotics and supplements to keep them in reasonable health due to conditions that do not allow a lot of movement and sunlight (light causes the animals to be more active and reduces mass). Use of steroids and other growth hormones is also quite common.
The standards of this type of red meat are subject to industry practices and demand, which in turn means that this type represents the highest variability when it comes to the quality of the finished product. We’ll leave it up-to you to determine how healthy this type of red meat is depending on what’s available to you.
*Processed Red Meat:
This is red meat that has gone through additional processing post the initial slaughter and the cutting/chopping.
We’d like to state at this point that the World Health Organization has recently classified processed meat as a Group 1(confirmed) carcinogen. As such, we would highly recommend against its consumption.
These products are often comprised of cuts of meat not commercially viable on their own, mixed with tissues such as internal organs, skin and blood. They are, depending on the product, ground, fermented, dried, heat-treated, used as stuffing, cured, smoked, treated with nitrates, other chemicals and preservatives.
Basically, it is really, really hard to tell what you’re actually getting when you buy this stuff.
These products are often easy to cook and convenient but we hope you’d agree that the convenience isn’t worth the cancer.
*Grass-Fed or Organic red meat:
Ideally, this meat would be produced without the use of drugs, hormones and chemicals. The animals would be fed naturally and offered a reasonable amount of care and hygiene.
Unfortunately, ensuring this can be a bit of an issue. As it tends to be with a lot of ‘green marketing’, the idea is to have a feel-good proposition that adds value to a product rather than the quality of the product itself.
If you can ensure this quality, you can minimize the negative effects of the previously listed meat categories. I mean, the nutritional aspects of red meat must surely be worth it, right? We’ll examine those in the next section.
Bottom-line: If you can ensure that the red meat meets high ‘Organic’ standards, moderate consumption is probably okay.
The Nutritional Profile of Red Meat:
A 100-gram portion of typical red meat, beef for example, contains about 10 grams of fat and 20 grams of protein. The fat may or may not be of interest depending on whether you’re trying to lose or gain weight. Protein is also a non-issue and you can read our take on it here.
That leaves us to look at the micro-nutrient profile, something that is often touted as a major point in supporting the consumption of red meat. And rightfully so, there are quite a few nutrients to be found. Important among them being: –
- *Vitamin B12
- *Vitamin B3
- *Vitamin B6
- *Iron – Specifically *Heme-Iron, we’ll make a reference to this towards the end of the article.
That’s an impressive list. It’s a bit outside the scope of this article to discuss these in detail, however it must be said that red meat delivers these nutrients in a considerable quantity.
The problem though is that, as with nearly all food, these aren’t present in isolation. So if you were particularly worried about or deficient in any of these, you would likely be better off supplementing with an isolated form of the problem nutrient rather than increasing red meat intake, given all of its associated risks (which we’ll discuss later on). There’s also the fat and cholesterol which, even in leaner cuts of meat is definitely a point of concern.
We normally advocate whole food as the first nutrition choice but supplementation Is an effective strategy when it comes to treating deficiencies. Even the most nutrient-dense foods will often not deliver enough to cover a deficit and bring things back to healthy levels.
Take B12 for example, a vitamin widely believed to come only from meat when in reality it is produced by micro-organisms found in water bodies. Many adults are deficient in B12 as a result of us treating our drinking water before consumption. If you were clinically diagnosed with a B12 deficiency, any doctor worth his salt would prescribe a mega dose of B12 (about 1000 mcg per day or 16666% the recommended daily value) to quickly bring levels back to normal. This is necessary because of the rather serious effects of staying B12 deficient over time.
It must also be said that these nutrients are in no way exclusive to red meat (some are even made by the body itself) so it may be worthwhile to consider alternative whole foods with a lesser associated risk.
Bottom-line: Red meat is arguably nutritionally dense but it is also dense with stuff that’s not good for you. We’d recommend getting just the good stuff elsewhere.
The effect of Red Meat on Heart disease, Diabetes and All-cause mortality
There is an overwhelming amount of mechanistic data linking red meat consumption to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and death in general.
Current guidelines on cholesterol and lipids in general are so far behind that tests indicate that individuals who suffered heart attacks as a result of cholesterol and arterial plaque had levels that were ‘under control’. It would be safe to recommend reducing our intake until the science catches up and testing standards evolve.
Red meat, while very low on the glycemic index, is quite high on the insulin index. This coupled with dietary fat can raise fasting insulin levels, induce insulin resistance and lead to diabetes.
A diet high in red meat Is almost certainly going to cause early mortality since very few people have the ability to process more than a small amount of cholesterol, coupled with the increased the risk of diabetes and related lifestyle conditions. The fat and protein from these diets will affect insulin levels and increase IGF-1 levels, leading to weight gain and more lifestyle diseases.
So this is all doom-and-gloom but we obviously need some protein right? I mean how else would you eat a balanced diet? Well, one of the studies used for the research of this article found that substituting other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes, was associated with a lower risk of mortality. Therefore, not all is lost.
Bottom-line: The risk-to-reward factor just doesn’t make sense when it comes to red meat and that makes it really hard to recommend especially if you have alternatives.
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. As we mentioned earlier, it is pretty much confirmed that processed meat causes cancer.
Well, the WHO and by extension the International Agency for Research on Cancer analysed over 800 studies and found that there was strong mechanistic evidence for red meat supporting a carcinogenic effect.
I know what you’re thinking, most naysayers will say that epidemiological studies may not be definite along with the now overused phrase, ‘correlation does not equal causation’. Well, we’d like to think that most people are smart enough to know that if we see the same correlations occur across 800 studies, not all of which are epidemiological BTW, that there is a cause and effect relationship at play here.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is, why would you roll the dice with your food? Why would you wait for red meat, which is classified under Group 2A as a carcinogen, to be re-classified in Group1, as was the case with processed meat? If you look at and research the studies, and we encourage you to do so to form your own opinion, It Is not hard to see that this is where things are headed.
Owing to modern animal farming practices, the line between processed and unprocessed meat is thinning as it is.
Bottom-line: The links between red meat consumption and cancer are too strong to ignore.
Even if you could ensure that your red meat was created with rainbows and sunshine, reviewing studies on just one term: ‘Heme’ could potentially demonstrate how red meat can lead to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As such, we cannot advise consuming any more than the bare minimum and would recommend looking at alternative food choices.
References and further reading
We at Fitnesstep1 encourage our readers to delve deeper and truly understand the matter at hand to form their own conclusions. Research and studies can be quite heavy and time consuming to read however, so we thought of linking you to a super easy to read Q&A on red meat by the WHO:-