Is Red Meat Good for You? The Science Based Answer

Eating red meat is one of the most divisive subjects in the history of nutrition. Despite the fact that we’ve been eating it for thousands of years, if not hundreds of thousands or longer, many people believe red meat can cause us harm. Scientists have even found fossilized animal bones from 2.6 million years ago that exhibit signs of butchery by early humans.

Red meat has had such a bad press and been blamed for everything from cardiovascular disease to cancer. A large number of people have even turned their backs on red meat with 3.4 percent of Americans eating a solely vegetarian diet. Although much of this could be due to ethical considerations as well as believing red meat to be bad for their health.

But there are just as many experts who’d argue that red meat is a quality protein that has a role to play in a healthy balanced diet. By cutting red meat completely you may be harming your health rather than improving it.

Red Meat Consumption in the US

Growing up as a child, like many households, a healthy meal was considered to be meat and two veg. Red meat can play a large part in many families diets, whether it’s the bacon at breakfast, your mom’s spaghetti bolognese or a rack of ribs at a weekend barbecue. The average American is estimated to have consumed approximately 106.9 pounds of red meat last year alone. This may seem like a lot, but it’s actually significantly lower than the average 145.8 pounds consumed in 1970.

Red meat consumption has steadily been falling by about 10 pounds per person a year for the last decade, with 2014 witnessing the lowest consumption of red meat since 1960. But why are so many people eating less red meat and are there any noticeable health benefits to society as a whole?

A shift towards vegetarianism could explain some of the drop in red meat consumption with approximately 8 million vegetarians in the U.S. according to a 2016 Harris Poll. One of the main deciding factors for becoming vegetarian was shown to be concerns about animal welfare and ethics. But many people also believe a plant-based diet is more healthy. In the same Harris Poll 37 percent of adults in the U.S. said they either always or sometimes chose vegetarian meals when dining out with 36 percent saying health factors was the main reason.

But if red meat is so bad for you, why have we eaten it for so many years and why do many of us continue to it? Some people would have you think red meat should have a hazardous substance warning sticker on it! Let’s look at why red meat is actually good for you and try to dispel some of those myths or rumors. Meat eaters of the world unite and fight back!

butcher shop

Red Meat Is Very Nutritious

What many of the people who argue that meat is bad for you overlook is the simple fact that red meat is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. Red meat is packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various other nutrients that can have positive effects on your health.

A 100-gram portion of raw ground beef only has a calorie count of 176 calories, with 20 grams of protein and 10 grams of fat. In addition, it contains 37 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin B12 which can’t be obtained from most plant-based foods. Let’s break it down:

100 grams of raw hamburger beef includes:

  • 25 percent RDA of vitamin B3 (niacin).
  • 37 percent RDA of vitamin B12.
  • 18 percent RDA of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).
  • 12 percent RDA of Iron (quality heme-iron, much better absorbed by the body than iron from plant foods).
  • 32 percent RDA of zinc.
  • 24 percent RDA of selenium.

And many other vitamins and minerals in smaller amounts.

Important nutrients like creatine and carnosine are found in red meats with many non-meat eaters being deficient, which can have serious effects on their health including muscle and brain function.

Many of these nutrients are available in other foods, but if you were to give up red meat you’d have to look harder for these nutrients and find plenty of other foods to make up the differences. Iron would be the biggest hurdle to going meat free.

Red Meat Is Rich in Iron

Iron deficiency is the world’s most common nutritional disorder with the World Health Organisation estimating there are 2 billion people or over 30 percent of the world’s population who suffer from anemia, mainly caused by a lack of the nutrient iron. Iron plays a part in many processes in the human body but perhaps most importantly the formation of red blood cells. Of the 4.5 grams of iron stored in the body, 60 percent is in the red blood cells with the rest being found in the spleen, liver, muscles and bone marrow.

Red meat is not only rich in iron, but it’s also a better form of iron. Non-heme iron found in many plant-based foods requires acid for the body to absorb it, so unless you pair your plant-based iron with a citric fruit or other source of acid you’re not going to get the benefit of the iron. Heme iron found in animal flesh and red meat is already in a form which can be easily absorbed by the body. Red meat is often recommended by many physicians if you have iron deficiency anemia.

Symptoms of low iron levels can include a depressed mood, fatigue, breathlessness, cracked nails and pale skin. Certain groups may also be more prone to iron deficiency including women with heavier menstrual cycles, pregnant woman, women who are lactating or people with gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Men need an average of 8.7 grams of iron a day with women needing more at about 14.8 grams. Iron can be especially important for pregnant women as it’s vital for the growth and development of the fetal brain.

Red Meat and Protein

Red meat provides virtually no carbohydrates and is mainly composed of protein. Dietary protein is essential for the growth, maintenance and repair of the body while also providing energy. On average red meat contains 20 to 24 grams of protein per 100 grams when raw and this goes up to 27 to 35 grams per 100 grams when cooked. Cooking red meat decreases the water content and the nutrients become more concentrated. There’s a higher ratio of protein in leaner cuts of red meat in general.

Although most developed countries have protein consumptions that are more than required for good health, any excess protein in your diet is used to provide energy. A U.K.-based study reported meat and meat based products contributed 40 percent and 37 percent of the average daily protein intake of men and women respectively in adults aged 19 to 64 years old.

Protein is a key player in the health of your body, helping form muscle mass, producing antibodies and boosting the immune system. Proteins are broken down into amino acids and red meats provide the nine essential amino acids that your body needs but can’t synthesize itself.

B Vitamins in Red Meat

Red meat is a rich source of the B12 vitamin vital for the correct functioning of almost every system in your body. Not getting enough B12 can contribute to ageing, neurological conditions, mental disorders, cancer, cardiovascular disease and can even cause infertility. Other B vitamins found in significant levels in red meat include thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folate, niacin and vitamin B6.

It can be important to try and get as many as these essential vitamins from whole foods rather than supplements, and red meat is one of the easiest ways to make sure you get your daily quota.

Vitamin D in Red Meats

If you don’t eat much oily fish or get much exposure to direct sunlight you may be lacking in vitamin D. Red meat can contribute to your vitamin D consumption and includes a vitamin D metabolite called 25-hydroxycholecalciferol which can be absorbed much quicker and easier than many other forms of dietary vitamin D. Red meat can be protective against a degenerative bone disease called rickets common to countries where there’s little sunlight exposure. Milk with the same amount of vitamin D was found not to offer the same protection which indicates that vitamin D found in red meat is more easily absorbed and useful to our bodies.

Zinc and Red Meat

There are many other sources of zinc available but the other rich sources of zinc, organ meats and shellfish don’t tend to be eaten as commonly as red meat. As with vitamin D and iron, the zinc found in red meats is absorbed more readily and can actually increase the absorption of zinc from other sources.

Zinc is an essential mineral that can play an important role in the physical makeup of our body essential for many maintenance jobs including strengthening our immune system and boosting a healthy brain. People who follow meat-free diets are far more prone to zinc deficiencies and the complications that can arise.

And of Course There’s the Fats

You may wonder why we’re talking about fats in red meat when we’re looking at how red meat can be good for you. Fat is the thing mentioned by most people when they say they’ve given up red meat for health reasons. But many of the fats in red meats can be beneficial to your health.

Red meat boasts equal amounts of saturated and monounsaturated fats with only a small amount of polyunsaturated fat. The saturated fat we all fear so much is actually essential for everything from brain health to energy. Monounsaturated fat is the same heart-healthy fat found in olive oil, often praised for its role in many Mediterranean diets. A 2012 study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating lean beef could improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. A result that many of you probably were not expecting!

Moderation Is the Key

Before we all think of red meats as a limitless superfood, as with most things in life, too much of a good thing can also be bad for you. Most doctors and nutritionists would recommend exercising caution before increasing your red meat intake too much.

Most of the red meat, especially beef that’s sold today is much leaner than before and we can eat lean cuts as part of a healthy diet. Nearly 70 percent of all the red meat sold today is considered to be lean by the US Department of Agriculture criteria. Breeding methods have evolved to change the fat composition of cattle and trimming practices have been significantly altered by butchers. A chicken breast with the skin on contains more fat than your average piece of lean steak.

It’s essential to look at how much meat you’re consuming. The American Institute for Cancer only recommends consuming less than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week. That shouldn’t be too hard to stick to, with a 4-ounce portion being roughly the same size as an iPhone, but many restaurants serve steaks that can tip the scales at 16 ounces. Just because we’ve looked at all the nutritional benefits of red meat it’s not an excuse to gorge on huge slabs of meat.

Always try to choose the leanest cut possible. Although fats are needed by the body, too much fat can block the arteries and lead to higher cholesterol lipids. Try to choose a piece of meat with the words ‘loin’ or ‘round’ on the label and when looking for ground meat go for the 90 percent lean mix as a minimum. Choosing a grass-fed option can give you less fat and more antioxidants than grain-fed cattle according to a study published by Nutrition Journal.

man hands holding burger

Why Does Red Meat Get Such a Bad Press?

When looking at the health benefits of red meat it’s important to realize that not all meats are created equal. The meats we eat today are very different from the meat of our forefathers. Most of the meat that’s been the subject of many studies is processed meat or factory farmed grain-fed cattle which may have received growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics. Processing can involve smoking, curing or treating with nitrates, preservatives and other chemicals.

Observational studies that linked red meat with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and death don’t actually prove the cause, just some factors which are correlated. In a review of 20 studies that used over a million individual cases, while there was an association of processed red meat to higher risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, there was no link found for unprocessed red meat.

Even the World Health Organization has stated that red meat is believed to be a cause of colorectal cancer, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide. But some studies have found that the increased risk of colorectal cancer is very low with other studies suggesting no link to the meat itself but instead the harmful compounds that can form when the meat is cooked.

Correlation and Causation Are Two Different Things

Most of the studies that supposedly prove red meat is bad for you are observational studies. These studies can only prove that two variables are associated and demonstrate a correlation. They can say an individual may be more likely to get sick if they eat more red meat but can’t definitively say the red meat was the cause.

Many other factors are often not taken into account, like lumping processed red meat and non-processed together, or looking at the lifestyles of the subjects. More health-conscious subjects who don’t eat red meat because they think it’s bad for them are less likely to smoke, drink excessively or eat more sugars than those ‘bad’ meat eaters.

Randomized controlled trials where people are put into random groups and one group eats diet A while the other group follows diet B would be much more effective at looking at the outcome of eating red meat. Unfortunately there are as yet no such studies that focus on red meat directly. Studies have been done on low fat diets where people had to eat less red and processed meats that are high in saturated fat. After a seven-year period there was shown to be no difference in the rate of heart disease or cancer.

Another randomized, controlled trial studied the Atkins diet (high in red meat) compared to the Ornish diet (a low fat vegetarian diet with no red meat). One year later, those who followed the Atkins diet had lost more weight and showed a greater improvement in the risk factors for disease.

Should You Eat Red Meat?

Red meat may have received a bad rap over the years but there’s no hard proof that red meat causes half the things sensationalist headlines say it does. Observational studies only generate theories and don’t actually test them. There are no controlled trials that link red meat to chronic diseases in humans.

By choosing unprocessed and preferably grass-fed red meat with gentler cooking methods there’s little for you to worry about, in moderation. Unprocessed red meat when cooked properly can be very healthy, full of healthy proteins and healthy fats, with vitamins and minerals that can have a positive effect on both your brain and body. Plus an added bonus, red meat tastes great too!

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