Red Meat: Healthy or Harmful?

Red Meat: Healthy or Harmful?
Red Meat: Healthy or Harmful?

There are a lot of controversial topics in nutrition … should we eat 3 meals per day with no snacks, or snack periodically? Are egg yolks good or bad? Is vegan the healthiest way, or are you missing nutrients from animal products? Should we take supplements, or get our nutrients from food?

One of the hottest topics lately has been … is red meat healthy? Or is it harmful? I get asked this question frequently by health coaching clients, and so I thought I’d take a crack at it here. Of course, this is an enormous topic, and it’s impossible to include my entire opinion in a single blog post.

However, I’ll do my best to lay out the basics of my thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours as well!

1. Because this is such a popular topic, every new study makes headlines, and is often sensationalized. Just last month, the Washington Post reported on a study showing that those who ate high levels of animal protein in middle-age were four times as likely to die of cancer than those who ate low levels of animal protein. Scary, right? Well, 13 days later, the New York Times reported on a study showing that saturated fat does not lead to higher risk of death, after all.

2. I love this research, so I read as much as I can, and reading from both sides helps me identify overlap and conflicts, and eventually form my own opinions. I’ve read books, articles, blog posts, and so much more – it’s fascinating to me!

3. There is a significant body of research showing that red meat is associated with increased risk and decreased health. Frequently-cited studies showing the detriments of red meat include:
Harvard School of Public Health Study, showing that red meat is associated with increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality. They showed that replacing one daily serving of red meat with nuts was associated with a 19% lower mortality risk!
– Looking into that same data on the same Nurse’s Health Study showed that red meat raises risk of diabetes, and also raises the risk of heart disease, and increases mortality from all causes.
The NIH-AARP study (also done on over half a million people) also showed that higher meat intake was correlated with higher risk of death overall, and death from cancer.

4. However, almost all of that research has serious “red flags.” A majority of the research in the “meat is bad” camp is done based on the Nurse’s Health Study, which is well-regarded since it was done on tens of thousands of people, over dozens of years. However … it was an observational study, which means it asked people to report on what they did eat, rather than manipulating their intake. This leaves a ton of room for error. It also didn’t monitor for meat quality (see #5!), type of meat, and many other things that could really mar the results. It did control for “major” health indicators like smoking, alcohol consumption, and vegetable consumption, but health is an exceedingly complex puzzle, and it’s not something that we can really “control for.”

It is definitely possible, since the studies showed a correlation and not a causation, that something else was causing all the increased mortality in these hundreds of thousands of people. So … there’s a lot out there, but we can poke holes in it quite easily.

5. Quality really matters when it comes to red meat. This is a topic for another entire post, but suffice it to say for this post that research shows (and I believe) that quality makes a huge difference. Processed meats like sandwich meats, hot dogs, commercially-produced sausages, are far less healthy in general – due to the nitrates, sodium, and other additives, as well as what processing does to the meat itself.

Commercial meat adds a whole slew of other potential issues, including hormones, antibiotics, and varying nutrient quality of meat from cows who have been fed unnaturally.

6. Bioindividuality strikes again. I truly do believe that there are some people who thrive on red meat consumption, and their bodies crave and efficiently use the nutrients it delivers. I also believe that there are others who feel sluggish, nauseous, or have digestive problems after eating red meat, and I don’t think they should force themselves to eat it. (And, of course, I believe you can be healthy without eating red meat if you choose not to for any reason). In the end, it all comes down to what works for your body, and that is what I help clients figure out through health coaching.

7. My overall opinion: Like almost anything, it’s all about balance and moderation. Especially if you are eating high-quality, grass-fed, organic red meat, I believe it can be enjoyed as a part of a healthy diet! At the same time, I definitely believe that the “average American” is eating too much red meat (about 114 pounds per year, or about 5 ounces per day, which is about two servings). Two servings every single day, 365 days per year, of something that has been shown in any studies to have some risk seems a bit excessive to me personally.

Unfortunately, I also believe that the meat the “average” person is consuming is of very poor quality, which makes the problem a lot worse. I personally eat red meat on occasion (I enjoyed filet mignon and bison steak on my birthday this year!), but I do my best to ensure that it’s high quality meat. That’s what works for me, but I recognize and respect that there are different things that work for different people.

Note: This is obviously a sensitive topic. I believe that the reason we hear such passionate (but often polarizing) thoughts from either side is that the people who are speaking “loudest” are those for whom one way is working. It’s rare (but admirable) to see a book that talks about how the author tried veganism but it wasn’t working well, or watch a movie about how the lead character tried Paleo but just didn’t feel great. Instead, the people who are proclaiming their thoughts (in an effort to help others) are those who feel amazing! And that’s great for them, but in my opinion, it still does not mean that one style of eating will work for everyone. All this to say … please share your opinions here, but please be respectful as well.