Is red meat healthy, or is it really “slowly killing” us?
Confusion rules when it comes to red meat and whether or not it is good for our health.
Media headlines often scream the results of some obscure study, warning how red meat will destroy your health and lead to an early grave.
At the same time, other people claim that red meat is a valuable source of nutrients that humans need.
Should we eat meat, or is it best to avoid it? And is it really so unhealthy?
Let’s take a look.
What is Red Meat?
In nutrition science, red meat is defined as any meat that has more myoglobin than white meat. A simpler definition would be that red meat is red when in its raw state.
Red meat comes in two principal varieties:
- Unprocessed meat includes beef, lamb, and pork. This includes any cuts of meat that have not been processed and don’t have any added ingredients. These meats can either be from grass-fed, naturally raised animals or grain-fed animals. There is a difference which we will come to later.
- Processed meat includes any meat that has been processed, cured, preserved, or contains added ingredients. Some examples of processed meat include bacon, sausages, hamburgers, spam, and hot dogs.
Why is Eating Red Meat Good For You?
Red meat tends to be incredibly nutritious and a primary source of nutrients in our diet.
When we think of vitamins and minerals, fruit and vegetables come into most people’s minds. However, red meat is one of the biggest sources of nutrients out of any food.
For example, let’s take a look at beef.
One 8oz beef steak provides the following (1):
- Niacin – 48% of the recommended intake
- Phosphorus – 30% of the recommended intake
- Potassium – 18% of the recommended intake
- Selenium – 54% of the recommended intake
- Vitamin B6 – 48% of the recommended intake
- Vitamin B12 – 30% of the recommended intake
- Zinc – 42% of the recommended intake
As you can see, it’s so much more than just protein and fat.
These micronutrients are all very beneficial for us, and people avoiding red meat tend to have trouble getting enough of them.
See this guide for more on beef’s health benefits.
Does Red Meat Have Any Negative Effects?
Some people claim so, and many vegan groups demonize meat.
There are several studies showing links between red meat and chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. As a result, it’s understandable that some people feel a little cautious about meat consumption.
These associations are strongest regarding processed meat, but they do exist for unprocessed meat too.
I’ll examine these studies in extensive detail a little later in this article.
Do Humans Need Red Meat?
The only dietary nutrients that humans need are protein and essential fatty acids (like omega 3 and 6).
But if you rephrase that question to “Is red meat optimal for humans?“, then my answer is a resounding yes.
Ignoring the health concerns of red meat (for now), here are a few reasons.
- Carnivory (eating meat) is believed to have been evolutionarily critical, helping develop our brains, lifespan, and fertility (2).
- Red meats are one of the best sources of protein, and they make a significant contribution to achieving healthy nutrient intake (3).
Additionally, a large-scale study that followed 1320 vegetarian and carnivore participants found that:
- The vegetarians required more medical treatment.
- The vegetarians had a higher rate of allergies, cancer, and mental health disorders.
- The authors concluded that the study shows a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health and poorer quality of life.
Is Eating Red Meat Healthy?
Unlike some would have you believe, an immediate yes (or no) answer to this question is overly simplistic.
To answer this we need to look at several components of red meat and how we use it:
- The studies: what do they show?
- Meat and methionine: is it life-shortening?
- Meat as a carcinogen: HCAs and PAHs
- Processed vs. Unprocessed: is there a difference?
- Grass-fed vs. grain-fed: does it matter?
Let’s delve in.
What Do Studies on Red Meat Show?
Red meat kills! Red meat causes cancer! If you believe front page media headlines, then that pretty much sums up what the studies show.
The problem is, of course, that most journalists blindly trust these studies, don’t know how to interpret the results, and take associations as causation when they write their cute little headlines.
Let’s take a look at the conclusions of three recent studies:
Study 1 – “Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD and cancer mortality. Substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk.”
This study shows an association between red meat and both cancer and CVD – no arguments. The biggest association was found regarding processed meat.
However, these are only associations. But are they associations with eating red meat or associations with an unhealthy lifestyle?
Let me explain:
The study shows that the groups eating most red meat were also more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and do very little exercise.
Red meat has been tainted as an unhealthy food by the media. The majority of people who have been eating it, despite health advice to the opposite, are therefore less likely to care about a healthy lifestyle.
Additionally, there is no definition of what red meat is. What are the people who are eating “unprocessed” red meat eating?
Is it organic, grass-fed beef steak with a plate full of vegetables?
Or is it a McDonald’s cheeseburger, with a side of fries and cola?
I think we all know that the average person is more likely to be eating the latter.
Interestingly, the study noted that “all-cause mortality was higher among participants with no red meat consumption.”
Perhaps an indicator that avoiding red meat causes problems.
Study 2 – “The results of our analysis support a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particularly due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer.”
This study was also conducted by food questionnaires and found an association between processed meat and mortality.
No arguments – I think we all know that eating spam and hot dogs is less than optimal.
However, the problem comes when a newspaper takes the study and write: “Red meat causes early death” on their front page. Yes – it happened.
Study 3 – The evidence is consistent that red meat, especially processed meat, is associated with all-cause mortality”.
You may have seen this paper back in May this year. If not, you likely saw it in the sensationalist news headlines around the web.
However, this study was just a review of prior studies (such as the ones above). It certainly was not clear evidence that “red meat is killing us” as seen in the headline above.
What do Random Controlled Trials Say About Red Meat Consumption?
How about we ignore the cohort studies that focus on associations, and instead look at reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) – the so-called “gold standard” in science.
What do they show us?
Actually, not a lot. There is certainly no study that provides cause for concern.
- A review of eight RCTs published between 1950 and 2010 found that there were no significant differences in lipid profile between people eating poultry, fish, and beef (4).
- A new systematic review of randomized controlled trials finds that consuming more than 0.5 daily servings of red meat per day has no adverse effect on cardiovascular markers. Compared to people consuming less than 0.5 daily servings, those consuming more had no adverse changes to their cholesterol profile or blood pressure.
Methionine in Red Meat – How Does it Affect Us?
Methionine is an essential amino acid involved in many critical cellular processes in our body.
However, excessive methionine can cause problems and has shown reduced longevity in animal studies (5).
As red meat is one of the largest dietary sources of methionine; what does that mean?
Well, two things.
1. Methionine can cause problems because it can lead to excessive homocysteine production. Homocysteine can cause oxidative damage in the presence of a B-vitamin deficiency.
2. Dietary glycine (animal bones, skin, cartilage) intake balances these effects of methionine.
This simple diagram provides a summary:
(Source: Weston A. Price)
As you can see, glycine and B vitamins are needed to create glutathione, known as one of the body’s master antioxidants.
In fact, in animal studies, methionine restriction resulted in increased lifespan. But animals fed methionine and glycine experienced this same extension of life (6).
The key is to ignore conventional dietary advice: lean beef with all the fat trimmed off is far from ideal.
Instead, more “whole food” style animal products like beef ribs and belly pork (with skin) provide everything your body needs.
Red Meat and High Heat Cooking
This could be a whole article on its own.
One problem is that cooking meat on a high heat creates the formation of several damaging chemicals.
When amino acids and creatine found in meat are exposed to high temperatures, they react and form heterocyclic amines (HCAs), a known carcinogen (7).
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are another toxic compound created by the high-heat smoking or cooking of meat on an open flame (8).
How Can We Minimize Risk?
Eating meat is not the problem; cooking it at excessive heat is.
Here are several ways you can minimize the intake/effect of HCAs and PAHs:
- Opt for less abrasive heating methods – such as boiling and stewing.
- The majority of HCAs are created at a temperature of 300˚F – stay under it.
- Using antioxidant-rich marinades (think herbs and spices) shows an up to 88% reduction in the formation of HCAs (14).
- Frequently flipping the meat when grilling reduces burning and formation of HCAs/PAHs (15).
- Red wine – either in the meal or alongside it – significantly reduces damage from HCAs/PAHs (16, 17).
- Intake of green vegetables is protective against damage, so make sure to include some in your meal (18, 19).
Processed Meat vs. Unprocessed Meat
This one is just common sense.
When we judge the health merits of red meat, we shouldn’t include ultra-processed meat products in our evaluation. That’s what many studies do.
Taking it one step further, there are also several categories of processed meat.
Not one study takes account of this.
Traditional style bacon and sausages that are naturally raised, made from real meat and with minimal ingredients are probably fine to eat occasionally.
On the other hand, some commercial meat products (like hot dogs) contain a range of unhealthy additives and should be avoided.
Then there are ultra-processed meals that include meat. These are even worse because along with the processed meat, they usually also include a ton of sugar, refined carbs, and vegetable oils.
Then there are the fast food joints that serve processed meat products.
Overall, it’s not surprising that there are associational links between processed meat and mortality.
Grass-fed vs Grain-fed Meat
To lower inflammation, diets that have a relatively balanced ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 are preferred.
While humans are believed to have evolved on a 1:1 ratio, unfortunately, the average Western diet now has a ratio of somewhere between 10-1 and 25-1 in favor of omega-6 (21).
Using an analysis of polyunsaturated fat in beef from seven different studies, I calculated the average omega ratio:
The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 averaged at 2.20 in grass-fed beef.
The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 averaged at 7.65 in grain-fed beef (22).
Not an insignificant difference. However, beef isn’t really a huge source of polyunsaturated fats so these numbers are only small in the grand scheme of things.
If you can source grass-fed beef for a reasonable price, then that’s ideal.
If not, grain-fed beef is still good for you.
The bulk of the evidence shows that red meat is a healthy, nutritious food that should probably play a role in most of our diets.
There are some issues and the way we source red meat, which cuts we choose, and the way we cook it all have the potential to impact upon our health.
The key is to choose meat from naturally-raised animals, ideally eat more than just muscle meat, and take care not to burn food.
At the end of the day, red meat is perfectly healthy – unless it’s sitting inside a bread bun.