Red meat consumption is a highly controversial issue. Many people even consider it to be common knowledge that red meat should be limited and that too much of it can be detrimental to our health. And then there others, like myself, whom are health-oriented and consume red meat pretty regularly. So what gives? Is red meat a one-way ticket to cancer and cardiovascular disease, or is it a health promoting nutrient-dense food? Well, let’s first look at why red meat has gained such a bad reputation.
There have been numerous studies that have led researchers to the conclusion that red meat consumption increases risks of developing illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc. The biggest caveat is that most of these conclusions are unreliable because they are based on epidemiological and observational studies as opposed to randomized controlled trials. This essentially means that certain populations were followed and observed for a certain period of time, without any sort of dietary intervention, and incidents of certain illnesses were observed alongside dietary habits. The problem with these types of research studies is that they cannot prove causation, but rather only show an association of two variables occurring together. And we know that correlation does not equal causation. The reliability of these studies also diminishes when less variables are controlled. For example, lots of these types of studies fail to control for lifestyle habits such as smoking, exercise, and other dietary factors, which can very easily contribute to the development of many degenerative diseases for which red meat is so often blamed. Another problem with observational studies is that they gather the bulk of their dietary data from food frequency questionnaires (FFQ), which rely on people’s memories on what and how much of certain foods they ate, sometimes over the course of several years. If I asked you how much red meat you ate last Tuesday, could you give me an accurate response? What if I asked you how many servings of vegetables you had on the first Monday of April? How about on the 10th of November in 2017? Yet some of these studies rely on people’s ability to recollect such information to draw its conclusions, leaving the study pretty shorthanded. Epidemiological studies are a good way to develop a hypothesis which can then be tested using a controlled experimental trial, but so many of them are used as the end-all-be-all to come up with conclusions that are not at all reliable.
Another pressing issue is the saturated fat and cholesterol content found in red meat. Both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol have long been accused of causing cardiovascular disease, but we now know that there is much more to that story. It has now been acknowledged in the mainstream health industry that, for most people, dietary cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol. In fact, a healthy individual will make his/her own cholesterol as needed, even in the absence of dietary cholesterol. The more cholesterol you eat, the less you make, and vice versa. Cholesterol is necessary for many things including the absorption of Vitamin D, hormone production, inflammation management, and bile production. As far as saturated fat is concerned, the jury is still out on whether or not it actually contributes to heart disease, especially when you consider the meat-heavy diets of healthy tribes like the Tsimane, Maasai, and the Inuit.
Red Meat: Causes For Concern
That being said, some mechanisms for meat causing cancer have, however, been identified including heme iron, the conversion of L-carnitine to TMAO, and some mutagens that occur when cooking meat. What research has shown though, is that consumption of vegetables mitigate these negative effects, while the consumption of grains can sometimes exacerbate them. Heme iron has the potential to be metabolized into toxic and carcinogenic compounds that can cause damage to the GI tract and increase risks of cancer. But chlorophyll, which is found in green vegetables, has been shown the prevent heme iron from being metabolized in this harmful way, and thus protects us from its potential damaging effects. L-carnitine is an amino acid found in red meat that can eventually be converted in the body into TMAO, a compound that is believed to increase risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But what some studies have found is that this conversion tends to take place when certain gut bacteria are present in high amounts, particularly gut bacteria that thrive on grains. L-carnitine to TMAO conversion levels seem to remain low when grain consumption is limited. HAs, and PAHs are compounds that are formed when meat (of any kind, red and white) is cooked. PAHs and HAs have been shown to cause cancer in animal studies. However, certain phytochemicals found in cruciferous vegetables have been shown to mitigate the damaging effects of these compounds. (Read more on the beneficial phytochemicals found in plants here!) Also, cooking meat at lower temperatures and using acidic marinades can reduce the amount of PAHs and HAs that are formed during the cooking process. So the moral of this story is that you should cook your meat at lower temperatures and eat it alongside plenty of cruciferous and green vegetables. (For more detailed information about this issue, read this article.)
Red Meat: The Benefits
So at this point you might be wondering, what’s the point of eating red meat anyway? Aren’t we better off not eating it all to reduce exposure to some of these seemingly harmful compounds? Not necessarily. Red meat is filled with plenty of nutrients that are either scarce in plant foods and/or are much more easily absorbed from animal sources.
Vitamin A in its usable form is called retinol. It is useful for healthy vision and eyes and helps regulate our circadian rhythm. It’s because of this that vitamin A status can affect how well we sleep, as it influences our body’s perception of light, and thus of night and day. Vitamin A also plays a role in strengthening our immune systems, maintaining soft and healthy skin, and in synthesizing sex hormones. While vitamin A can be sourced from colorful fruits and vegetables, this form of it (carotenoids) must first be converted by our bodies into retinol before is can be utilized as retinol. Unfortunately, many things can get in the way of this conversion rate, including other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, protein deficiency, hypothyroidism, diabetes, and even your genetics. Our most absorbable form of vitamin A comes from animal foods, including whole eggs and raw full-fat dairy. While vitamin A is not found in high amounts in red muscle meat, nature’s most potent source of it is found in beef liver, which is one of the reasons why it’s important to eat nose-to-tail.
This vitamin can be acquired primarily from sun exposure and dietarily from oily fish. But for those that don’t receive either of those, red meat can aid in preventing vitamin D deficiency. VD requires cholesterol in order to be properly utilized, and since plants do not contain cholesterol, our best and most absorbable form of dietary vitamin D is from animal sources.
One of the biggest concerns for vegetarians and vegans is the possibility of B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is necessary for proper nerve function and red blood cell formation. It also provides us with energy (which so many of us lack), and helps utilize fats, carbohydrates, and proteins adequately. Some people actually find that their energy levels improve by simply supplementing with B12. B12 deficiency can lead to fatigue, changes in mood, and in more severe cases pernicious anemia and permanent damage to the nervous system. It has also been linked to cancers, heart disease, and infertility. Red meat is the best source of vitamin B12, while plants contain only insufficient amounts of it. Because of this, most vegans and vegetarians need to supplement with B12 to avoid deficiency.
Other B Vitamins
Red meat also contains significant amounts of other B vitamins including thiamine, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, riboflavin, and vitamin B6. This is important because B vitamins (like most nutrients) work synergistically, meaning that the body utilizes them best in the presence of all the others. Just like B12, these other vitamins contribute to the metabolism and utilization of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and can aid in relieving chronic fatigue and/or chronic stress.
Zinc is important for wound healing, acne prevention, collagen formation, bone and joint health, and insulin activity. Zinc also plays a major role in male sex organ function and is especially important for prostate health. Red meat provides a greater source of zinc than other meats like poultry and fish. Plus, zinc found in red meat is more bioavailable than that which is found in plant foods. Because of this, those that eat a meat-free diet are at a higher risk for developing zinc deficiency, which can lead to poor sexual development/infertility, fatigue, and a weak immune system.
Iron toxicity is something that can happen, so it is important to be aware of your iron status. But iron deficiency is a much more common problem and is one of the main contributors to anemia. Just like with zinc, the iron in red meat is much more absorbable than that which is found in plants, and red meat contains significantly more iron than white meat does. Iron status is important because it contributes to the transportation of oxygen throughout the body, proper immune function, energy metabolism, and neurotransmitter production and cognitive function.
Red meat also contains a very interesting and favorable fatty acid status. Red meat is comprised primarily of saturated fat and monounsaturated fat, which are both much more resilient to heating than polyunsaturated fats (which are commonly found in plant foods). Also, red meat from grass-fed animals in particular contains a higher omega 3:6 ratio than many other fat containing foods, plant and animal sources included.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a naturally occuring trans fatty acid found mostly in grass-fed meat and dairy, which I know sounds scary. But before you freak out, CLA is NOT at all the same as the industrially manufactured trans fats that the FDA recently banned from food production. This naturally occuring trans fat is chemically different from the man-made tran fats and may actually be extremely beneficial to our health. CLA is likely to aid in preventing cardiovascular disease by preventing arterial plaque formation. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation and prevent the growth of certain tumors. It may also help increase insulin sensitivity and thus aid in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
So there are some concerns with red meat consumption, but lots of them are raised by unreliable studies with few controlled variables. And although some mechanisms in red meat have been identified as potentially harmful, we may be doing ourselves a huge disservice by avoiding red meat altogether. The nutrient profile of red meat trumps that of plant foods in some pretty crucial aspects. If you’re concerned for your health, consuming plenty of green, leafy, colorful, and cruciferous vegetables alongside red meat and cooking at lower temperatures seems to work better for maintaining health than avoiding red meat completely. DON’T FEAR THE MEAT!
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