Is red meat bad for you?
Study after study links red meat to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, kidney problems, and death.
But in 2019, the Annals of Internal Medicine backed a different stance. According to 5 systematic reviews, neither unprocessed or processed red meat increases the risk of chronic disease or premature death...so eat up, the authors say (1)!
Then there are the Maasai, a Nilotic ethnic group in Kenya and northern Tanzania that subsist solely on meat and milk but have low blood cholesterol levels and no evidence of atherosclerosis or heart disease (2).
What gives? If red meat is so bad for you, how are the Maasai people so healthy? And why do some new studies paint a far friendlier picture of red meat?
Let’s look objectively at the findings to see how red meat best fits into your eating plan.
Know Your Meat
The human digestive system is well equipped to break down red meat into its constituent parts for use by the body, but it’s not as well equipped to handle the chemicals and additives of factory-farmed modern meat.
Conventional red meat comes from cows born and raised in commercial factory farms. They are fed grain-based diets and given growth hormones and antibiotics to fatten them up. Once the animal is slaughtered, it’s smoked, cured, and treated with preservatives, chemicals, and nitrates to sell as bacon, salami, and sausage.
Grass-fed, organically grown meat is proven to have more nutrients, and is free of additives, hormones, antibiotics, and artificial chemicals, making it the gold standard of high-quality meat.
The majority of studies on the health effects of red meat and its link to cardiovascular disease is done on factory-farmed, conventional meats.
There is a wealth of observational studies suggesting that regularly eating red meat, particularly processed red meat, puts you at greater risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, and death (3).
There are far fewer studies refuting this link, so let’s give a bit more attention to those, for now.
A meta-analysis of 20 studies made up of over 1.2 million people concluded that consumption of processed meat does indeed increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but that consumption of unprocessed red meat does not (4).
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study validated these findings, indicating that eating processed meat did increase risk of death from cancer and heart disease, while unprocessed red meat had no such effects (5).
But it’s not as cut and dry as processed meat bad, unprocessed red meat good.
Studies such as this one published in the European Heart Journal suggest that eating red meat raises levels of a cancer-causing toxin called Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) produced by bacteria in the gut. People who ate red meat had much higher levels of TMAO and an increased risk of death.
Other studies show that regular red meat consumption is associated with increased cancer risk, especially colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, invasive breast cancer, and stomach cancer.
As for the recent review from Annals of Internal Medicine downplaying the threat of red meat and processed meat and recommending continued and unlimited consumption, Harvard Health Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health issued a statement:
"This new red meat and processed meat recommendation was based on flawed methodology and a misinterpretation of nutritional evidence," says Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition. "The authors used a method often applied to randomized clinical trials for drugs and devices, which is typically not feasible in nutritional studies."
What About Saturated Fat?
Saturated fat, which makes up a hefty proportion of red meat depending on the cut, is often cited as the culprit behind higher risk of heart disease and associated health problems. The American Heart Association stands behind this assertion, claiming that high amounts of saturated fat and any amount of trans fat can increase risk factors for heart disease, like high cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
But not all nutritionists or medical institutions stand behind this notion or vilify saturated fat. A meta-analysis of 36 studies, for instance, showed that replacing red meat with plant-based proteins such as soybeans and legumes improved concentrations of fat in the blood but did not lead to significant improvements in blood pressure or cholesterol (6).
Health Benefits of Red Meat Intake
There are the nutritional benefits of eating red meat to consider, of which there are many. Let’s take a look at the nutritional makeup of 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of raw ground beef:
- Calories: 176
- Protein: 20 grams (40% of the RDA)
Fat: 10 grams (15% of the RDA)
Saturated fat: 4.1 grams (20% of the RDA)
- Vitamin B12: 2.2 mcg (37% of the RDA)
- Zinc: 4.8 mg (32% of the RDA)
- Niacin: 5.1 mg (25% of the RDA)
- Selenium: 16.6 mcg (24% of the RDA)
- Vitamin B6: 0.4 mg (18% of the RDA)
- Phosphorus: 184 mg (18% of the RDA)
- Iron: 2.2 mg (12% of the RDA)
These nutrients help the body thrive. Vitamin B12 plays a critical role in the production of red blood cells, zinc boosts testosterone levels, selenium is a powerful antioxidant, and the heme iron in red meat is easier for the body to use than non-heme iron found in plant foods.
Red meat is also a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs to build muscle and activate chemical processes in the body, as well as carnosine and creatine for healthy brain and muscle function.
The nutritional value of red meat, be it from beef, pork, lamb, goat or other land mammal, varies according to the cut, the feed, how the animal is raised, and even its gender and age. Grass-fed meat is more plentiful in nutrients like omega-3s, CLA, and vitamins A and E.
Best Practices for Buying and Eating Red Meat
While evidence on whether red meat is bad for you is mixed, the negative findings seem to point more frequently to processed meat like hot dogs and are based on high intake. Following the dietary recommendations of the American Heart Association and other health organizations to cut back on red meat consumption to 2-3 servings (12-18 ounces) of lean cuts of meat a week and limit your intake of processed meats can ensure you benefit from all the nutrition in red meat without the potential risks.
Best Cooking Methods
Cooking meat at too high temperatures produces harmful compounds, including heterocyclic amines (HAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). Cancer research indicates these toxins can cause cancer in animals, and may be the reason why red meat intake is associated with an increased risk of cancer in people.
If you’re a meat eater, these cooking tips can be applied to not just red meat but white meat such as poultry and fish.
To reduce the adverse effects of meat consumption:
- Avoid cooking over high heat
- Do not cook over an open flame
- Warm up in the microwave to reduce high-heat cooking time
- Flip often
- Do not consume charred parts
- Serve with antioxidant-rich veggies and whole grains
Reduce Red Meat Intake Without Compromising Protein Intake
Eating less meat means eating less protein, which can have disastrous effects on the body. A lack of protein in your diet can reduce your muscle mass and strength, slow your metabolism, weaken your immune system, impair the wound healing process, and even lead to health conditions like anemia and bone loss.
To help prevent these health risks, essential amino acid supplementation is important. A daily scoop of essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, helps you meet your body’s protein needs, protects against muscle wasting while boosting muscle growth, heart health, and the immune system, and improves overall health outcomes.
If red meat has been your go-to and you’re ready to cut back, then make sure you maintain your muscles and strength by feeding your body the aminos it needs.