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Is Red Meat Healthy?

by Joseph Whittaker
Processed Red Meat

Since the 1950s, red meat has been considered unhealthy.  Red meat has been blamed for everything: heart disease, cancer and even blindness (1). Some have suggested that red meat should come with health warning labels, like tobacco (2). Also, more people than ever are becoming vegetarian and vegan (3), due to the general belief that animal foods are unhealthy.

Think of a nice juicy steak, dripping with fat and full of flavour; hardly the image of health in the modern era.  However, is this reputation well deserved?


Does Processed Meat Cause Cancer?

A 2016 meta-analysis which pooled the results of 9 studies, including a total of 1.4 million participants concluded:

Each serving per day of processed meat consumption was associated with a 15% higher risk of all-cause mortality (4)

Processed meat, including bacon, sausage and ham increases cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. Salting, curing and smoking meat forms carcinogens, which cause cancer. In particular, processed meat increases the risk of stomach, colon and rectal cancers (5,6).

Processed meat is classified as a group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organisation. This means it is ‘Carcinogenic to humans’ (7). It is one of only 2 foods which are group 1 carcinogens, the other one is Chinese salted fish.


Does Red Meat Cause Heart Disease?

The same meta-analysis concluded that: unprocessed red meat was not associated with increased mortality. However, the study also revealed that:

The association between unprocessed red meat consumption and mortality risk was found in the US populations, but not in European or Asian populations.

A large European study which covered 10 countries was included in the meta-analysis (the EPIC study). It found that red meat eaters did have a higher risk of mortality (8). However, they also smoked more, drank more, ate less fruit and vegetables, and were less educated. After adjustment for these factors red meat had no effect on mortality, but interestingly processed meat had an increased effect.*

Laboratory studies (RCTs) show that red meat has no effect on blood cholesterol or blood pressure levels (9). This indicates that red meat has no effect on cardiovascular disease. Also, meat’s saturated fat content does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease as commonly believed (full explanation here).

*Side Note: This may explain why earlier studies showed red meat to be unhealthy. Red meat is perceived to be unhealthy, so health-conscious people avoid. Therefore, it looks like low intakes of red meat are beneficial. When actually it is the other behaviours of the health conscious, like exercising, which is giving the benefit.


The Argentinian Paradox

Grass Fed Cows

Grass Fed Cows

In 1536 the Spanish conquistadors brought cattle to Argentina which thrived in the vast fertile lowlands of The Pampas. Wild herds roamed these grasslands until the mid-19th century. Nowadays, meat is still a substantial part of the Argentinian diet, and their national dish is Asado – barbequed beef. Research conducted in Cordoba, Argentina, showed that eating 53-95g of lean beef per day decreased the risk of colorectal cancer by 36%, and eating over 95g decreased the risk by 33% (10). Similarly, research done in the UK also showed a protective effect of eating red meat, which reduced total mortality (11).


Summary So Far

  • Red meat intake in UK, Argentina and Europe red meat is healthy
  • Red meat intake in the USA is unhealthy


Why is US Beef Unhealthy?

USA Feedlot Operation

USA Feedlot Operation

  • Grain Fed. The US cattle industry uses intensive feedlot operations, which house thousands of cows in pens. The cows are fed a diet of corn, grains and roughage, to fatten them up quickly for slaughter. This results in the cows getting metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes) and causes extensive marbling in the meat. Grain fed meat has lower nutrients than grass fed, and a higher proportion of cholesterol-raising fatty acids, such as palmitic acid (12).
  • Growth Hormones. The use of synthetic growth hormones in US cattle is legal and widespread. These hormones are used to make the animals grow at an unnatural rate and can remain in the tissue after slaughter. Zeranol one most widely used hormones can increase breast cancer cell growth (13).
  • Antibiotics. The animals have poor diets and live in cramped and crowded conditions, therefore infections and disease are a major problem. Antibiotics are mixed in with their feed and given to them throughout their life. This stops them from dying due to their poor conditions and increases growth (they get fatter). Antibiotic residues may remain in the meat, and alter our gut flora (14). Furthermore, the overuse of antibiotics promotes antibiotic-resistant bacteria in cattle, which can infect us through eating undercooked meat, or the handling of raw meat (15).
  • Environmental Toxins. All cattle are exposed to environmental toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs (16). These can cause cancer, hormonal disruption, and more. Most of these toxins are fat-soluble and are stored in the fat of the animal. Unsurprisingly, cattle raised in the US are some of the most heavily contaminated of all, due to industrial pollution and their poor diets (17).
  • Mycotoxins. The diets of US cattle often contain mouldy grain which contains mycotoxins (18). Mycotoxins are produced by the mould to kill off competing bacteria. These toxins such as aflatoxin are among the most potent known to man and remain in the meat after slaughter.


Better Quality Meat = Better Health

If you’re eating meat (beef or lamb) in the UK and Argentina it is much more likely to be grass fed. In the UK antibiotic use on cattle is banned useless the animal is sick and the same holds true across Europe. In addition, the European Union has also banned the use of growth hormones. The quality of red meat outside the US is much better. Hence, why we see benefits from eating red meat in the UK, Europe and Argentina. Feedlot operations still exist in these countries but they are more common and harsher in the US.


Reasons to Eat Grass-Fed Meat

  • Lower fat. Grass-fed beef has roughly about a third less fat. Some fat is good for us, but eating a large amount is probably suboptimal for health.
  • Better Omega 3 : Omega 6 ratio. Grass-fed meat has more omega 3 and less omega 6 leading to a healthy ratio of fats. Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory, whereas omega 6 is pro-inflammatory.
  • More CLA. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a fatty acid that has been found to have a range of benefits. These include anticancer effects, weight loss and reductions in atherosclerosis (19).
  • More Vitamin A and E. Grass-fed beef has higher amounts of vitamin A and E. One portion of grass-fed beef has 150mcg of Vitamin A.


I can’t get Grass-Fed Meat, should I eat Grain Fed?

Yes! The EPIC study which was conducted in Europe found that those who ate low-moderate amounts of red meat had the lowest risk of mortality (8). The majority of these people would have been eating grain fed meat. Speaking generally, European cattle will be grass fed for most of the year, with some supplementary grain feed. They will also eat grains to get them ready for slaughter. Also, growth hormones or regular antibiotics would not have been given to the cattle.

Red meat is a nutrient dense food and an excellent source of B vitamins, zinc, iron, selenium, phosphorus and high-quality protein. It is a great food to include in your diet (if you can get good quality).


Red Meat Quality Guide: To eat or not to eat?

(Ranked from best to worse)
  1. Organic, Grass Fed. Up to 3 portions per week.
  2. Grass Fed. Up to 3 portions per week.
  3. Organic. Up to 2 portions per week. (Organic does not mean 100% grass fed, but it will be mostly grass fed.)
  4. Grain & Grass Fed + Hormone & Antibiotic Free. Up to 2 portions per week. (Typical beef from the UK and Europe).
  5. Grain Fed + Hormone & Antibiotic Free. Up to 1 portion per week.
  6. Grain Fed + Hormone and/or Antibiotics USED. Avoid Entirely.

The research indicates that 2 portions of good quality red meat a week would be optimal for health. 3 portions a week would also be healthy if you can get very good quality meat.

Note on Pork: The highest quality pork will be pasture raised and outdoor bred. The second highest would be organic. There are no grass-fed pigs as they do not eat grass.

Note on Portions: Portion limits cannot be mixed e.g. 3 portions of grass-fed + 2 portions of organic, in one week is not acceptable.


Red Meat Cooking Guide: To fry or not to fry?

BBQ Red Meat

Is BBQ meat safe?

Cooking meat at high temperatures forms carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and advanced glycation end products (AGEs). HCAs and PAHs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, and likely do the same in us (20). AGEs can accelerate ageing, inflammation and chronic diseases (21).

PAHs are formed in the smoke given off when meat juices drip onto a heated surface or open flame.  The PAHs stick to the meat as the smoke rises. Barbequing or grilling meats over heat sources should be avoided.

HCAs and AGEs are formed by a reaction between the amino acids, sugars and creatine in meat. This reaction is responsible for the browning of meat and is called the Maillard reaction.

The formation of HCAs takes place above 125°C, so cooking methods using moist heat, such as steaming and stewing, do not form HCAs. However, few HCAs are formed below 160°C. AGEs are also more readily formed at higher temperatures. The longer and hotter meat is cooked for, the more HCAs and AGEs are formed. Above all, frying and grilling are the worst cooking methods, as the meat’s surface can get very hot (22).

Low temperature roasting (175°C) for short durations (20mins), is better than high temperature roasting for long durations. Likewise, low temperature frying is better than high temperature frying.

Olive oil, garlic, herbs, spices and acidic marinades such as lemon and vinegar can all reduce AGE and HCA formation. Use liberally!


Healthiest Cooking Methods

(Ranked from best to worst)
  1. Steaming & Stewing
  2. Roasting (Low Temperature & Short Duration)
  3. Frying (Low Temperature & Short Duration)
  4. Roasting (High Temperature & Long Duration)
  5. Frying (High Temperature)
  6. Grilling
  7. Barbequing

Use only the first 3 methods on a regular basis, to reduce your exposure to carcinogens.


Key Points

  • Processed meat causes colorectal cancer
  • Poor quality red meat consumption increases mortality
  • Low to moderate amounts of good quality red meat improves health
  • Buy the best quality meat you can afford
  • Barbequing, grilling, frying and roasting form carcinogens which cause cancer
  • Gentle cooking methods like stewing and steaming are best
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