Eating meat is not only a question of health, but also of ethical, emotional, and ecological concern. In this article, I’m going to focus solely on health. So while there are definitely some strong arguments outside the context of health, I’m taking a very unbiased, strict look at the association of red meat and illness.
With studies, it’s crucial to distinguish between unprocessed and processed red meat. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. Processed red meats include anything that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or transformed in some other way. Examples of processed meats include bacon, bologna, hot dogs, lunch meats, corned beef, beef jerky, sausages, salami and canned meat. When reviewing research, it’s also important to try and isolate the unprocessed red meats from the processed meats, since it’s just plain common knowledge that processed red meats are bad for your health. Proceed meat is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is in the same class as smoking tabacco. (R) It’s also important to try and look at other factors that may increase the risk of disease or death, such as smoking, being overweight, or physical inactivity.
Most people that eat red meat these days are also eating grain-fed, highly industrialized meat that comes from animals shot up with hormones and antibiotics, which is not really as good as grass-fed pasture raised organic red meat in regards to fatty acid profile. (R)
Red Meat is Fairly Nutrient Dense
Red meat does have quite a bit of nutrients. 3 oz of 90% lean ground beef is a good source for the following nutrients.
Vitamin B2/Riboflavin: 0.1 mg (9% DV)
Vitamin B3/Niacin: 4.4 mg (22% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.3 mg (15% DV)
Vitamin B12: 2.1 mcg (35% DV)
Iron: 2.5 mg (14%)
Potassium: 255 mg (7% DV)
Zinc: 5.7 mg (38% DV)
Selenium: 18.4 mcg (26% DV)
Red meat also contains some omega-3s, but it depends on what the animal was fed. Generally, grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3s than grain-fed beef.
Also, red meat is a high quality protein source, meaning its protein is highly bioavailable. We are able to digest and absorb much more of the protein from red meat than the protein found in plant sources, beans.
Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and Death
A lot of research and studies have come to the conclusion that unprocessed red meat is not associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, or death. Many randomized controlled trials have also found that red meat does not affect LDL cholesterol (LDL is the bad cholesterol) any more than white meat. (R)
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) followed almost 500,000 people for more than 12 years, and found no significant association between unprocessed red meat and all-cause mortality, or death from cardiovascular disease or cancer. The EPIC study did find a moderate positive association between consuming more than 160 g/day (5.64 oz) of processed meat and mortality, which is not surprising to anyone at this point. Also, people who eat more processed meat are more likely to be smokers and eat less fruits and vegetables. (R)
Now, here’s the kicker. The EPIC study found a higher risk of all-cause mortality in people who consumed very low or no amounts of red meat, which is the opposite of what we would normally think. (R)
A 2013 analysis from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) included over 17,000 men and women and also found that meat was not associated with death, or death from cardiovascular disease or cancer. Also, the people who ate more red meat were more likely to eat more vegetables than those who ate red meat less often. Those who ate more red meat were also less likely to have high blood pressure (hypertension). (R)
A meta-analysis that included over 1.2 million participants and more than 20 countries found that consuming 100 g/day (3.5 oz) of unprocessed red meat is not associated with cardiovascular disease or diabetes, but processed meats are. (R)
A 2012 meta-analysis found no significant differences in fasting cholesterol and triglycerides in people who consumed beef and poultry and/or fish, and actually found that LDL cholesterol was a little bit lower in those who consumed beef. (R)
Here’s another crazy study, again indicating that red meat may not be as bad as we think. The Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study (BOLD RCT) found that heart healthy diets, which include lean beef as the main the protein source, are just as effective as the DASH diet in lowering total and LDL cholesterol. The DASH diet is one that discourages the consumption of red meat, and encourages more white meat and plant protein instead. This study found that an intake of 113 g and 153 g of beef per day lowers LDL cholesterol by about the same as the DASH diet, roughly 5%. The BOLD diet contained 28% total fat, 6% saturated fat, 45-54% carbohydrates, and 19-27% protein. (R)
Now, there are studies that basically say the opposite of what I’ve been reviewing. For instance, this study found that both unprocessed and processed red meat were associated with increased risk for total, cardiovascular death, and cancer mortality. However, this study is not as large or as good as some of the other studies which show no association between unprocessed red meat and all-cause mortality or cardiovascular disease. This study also found that the participants who ate more red meat also were less likely to be physically active, more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and have a higher body mass index (BMI). (R) Also, a study in India found that vegetarians had reduced cardiovascular disease risk factors compared to meat eaters. (R)
Red meat has a unique fatty acid profile that doesn’t negatively influence cholesterol levels. One of the main saturated fatty acids in red meat known as stearic acid, does not raise LDL cholesterol. Another main saturated fatty acid called palmitic acid does indeed raise LDL cholesterol, but it also raises HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), which negates the increase in LDL cholesterol. (R)
What If Your Already Sick?
The best remission rates for Crohn’s disease have been found when patients significantly reduce meat consumption by following a semi-vegetarian diet. (R)
Now, this study isn’t looking at red meat specifically, but it does support and provide evidence that reducing meat consumption can seriously help those with inflammatory bowel disease.
A randomized controlled trial consisting of patients with type 2 diabetes compared the effectiveness of a vegan diet versus the conventional American Diabetes Association (ADA) Guidelines diet (which consists of meat) and found that although both groups had improvements in lipids, weight, and glycemic control, the vegan diet was better than the ADA diet. (R)
Again, this isn’t technically looking at red meat, but it does provide evidence that plants are probably a better choice.
L-carnitine and TMAO
As of right now, the evidence behind eating red meat, consuming L-carnitine, producing more TMAO, and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease is lacking. Also, many other studies suggest that red meat intake does increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, this connection is still something to consider when eating red meat.
The WHO has found that although the evidence is limited, eating red meat is associated with colorectal cancer. (R)
This study found that processed red meat is associated with risk of colorectal cancer, while unprocessed red meat does not appear to significantly increase the risk of colorectal cancer. (R)
On the WHO website, is states that for every 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by about 18%. (R)
Another study found that grilled red meat is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. (R)
How you cook your red meat may make in difference in risk of cancer. When red meat is cooked at a high temperature (i.e. grilling or pan frying on high), heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed. These chemicals have been found to be mutagenic and increase the risk of cancer in laboratory experiments. PAHs are caused by fat drippings falling into the fire of a grill and causing flames. The flames then coat the meat with PHAs. HCAs are formed by a browning reaction (Maillard reaction) of amino acids, sugars, and creatine with high heat. (R)
To reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs, do the following:
- cook meats at lower temperatures
- avoid cooking at high temperatures for a long time
- continuously turn meat over while its cooking on high heat
- cook the meat in a microwave (probably won’t taste good though)
- remove the charred portions of meat
- don’t use meat drippings to make gravy
- boil the meat
If you don’t like boiled meat by itself, you could boil the meat first, then grill or fry it for a short time, and turn continuously, which will still lower the amount of HCAs and PAHs. (R)
It’s important to understand though, that no matter how you cook your meat, there will still be some amount of HCAs and PAHs, which means there will be some amount of mutagens and carcinogens in there.
Here’s my take on red meat, and meat in general. Definitely stay away from the processed meats. Almost everyone in the world does not need to eat meat, because they have access to plant foods that contain protein and sufficient nutrients. The only people that actually need to eat animal foods are the ones that don’t have access to other foods, and/or they react to too many plant foods and therefore have to consume meat in order to get adequate nutrition. Consuming a few ounces of unprocessed red meat probably won’t do too much harm according to the research I’ve seen, but be sure the meat is cooked fully, and try cooking by the methods discussed.
Since unprocessed red meat doesn’t appear to be harmful, I would say it’s OK to eat a little here and there, but I am not advocating eating red meat in anyway. I do believe there are better options for your health. If you find that you get gut pain, headaches, or some other kind of noticeable inflammation, then you should definitely consider significantly reducing the consumption of it or completely removing it from your diet.