Is it good or bad for you?
It seems like every few years there’s a new report on the risks or benefits of meat. This makes it very confusing when it comes to knowing whether or not you should be eating it. What’s the truth? Is meat harmful or is it helpful? Is one type better than another?
Throughout history, eating meat has been synonymous with prosperity because wealthy people could afford to eat meat regularly. They grew tall and strong compared to the poor who didn’t have access to it and remained weak and scrawny. By the mid-20th century, that started to change as some well-off countries developed the agricultural and transportation technology to make food cheap and abundant. In America, chain restaurants and government subsidies have resulted in the intake of meat growing every decade. Since the 1960s, the per-capita intake has doubled, which means the average person eats more than twice their own weight in meat every year. The amount of meat eaten by Americans is double the global average. However, this doesn’t mean that other countries are consuming it. In the early 1980s, the average Chinese person ate 30 pounds of meat a year, but that amount is nearly 140 pounds today. Over the next three decades, global meat consumption is expected to increase by 75%. The health effects of this level of consumption are significant and becoming very apparent. Experts have long disagreed about the benefits and risks of eating meat. Some consider it a staple to any diet because it’s a great source of protein and essential nutrients. However, others believe it’s unhealthy, unethical, and unnecessary. These mixed messages can make it very confusing. So, what’s the truth?
Most of us are aware that meat is the flesh of animals that are consumed as food. In America and many other countries, it refers to the muscle tissue of mammals and birds that are eaten as steak, chops, ribs, roast, or ground form. Different types are categorized by the source and how they’re prepared. Red meat gets its name from the iron-rich protein, myoglobin, that it contains in its tissue and comes from mammals, like cattle (beef), pigs/hogs (pork), lamb, calves (veal), goat, and large game animals (ex. bison, elk, and deer). White meat is lighter in color than red meat and comes from birds, such as chicken, turkey, duck, goose, and wild birds (ex. quail and pheasant). Processed meat is meat that has been modified by salting, curing, smoking, drying, or other processes that help to preserve it or enhance the flavor. Examples of processed meats are hot dogs, sausage, bacon, jerky, and luncheon meats (ex. bologna, salami, and pastrami). Typically, most of the meat ingested comes from domesticated animals that are raised on farms. Nowadays, the “farms” are actually large industrial complexes that usually contain thousands of animals at a time.
Some experts point out that animal proteins offer several health benefits. The first thing to note is that it’s a complete protein because each serving provides all nine essential amino acids your body needs to function. A report released in 2017 demonstrated that women who don’t eat enough red meat are more likely not to have enough iron, zinc, potassium, and B vitamins that they need in their bodies. Animal protein is shown to reduce appetite, increase metabolism, and promote fullness. Besides, it has been linked to increased muscle mass, improved bone density, and enhanced strength. The heme iron in meat is absorbed by your body better than non-heme iron from plants. The best source of protein is lean meats because they contain about 25–30% protein by weight after cooking. One study in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology found that lean meat doesn’t negatively impact a person’s blood lipids. Experts also highlight that any unnecessary protein is excreted out of the body, which means that ingesting too much meat isn’t considered dangerous as far as high protein levels.
The main concern when it comes to meat and health is how it’s cooked and prepared. When it’s grilled, barbecued, or smoked at high temperatures, fat drips onto hot cooking surfaces, which produces toxic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can seep into the meat. PAHs can cause cancer (carcinogenic). Another cancer-causing concern is heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs), which are formed when meat is heated to high temperatures to the point there is a dark crust on it (or cooked for an extended time). They’ve also been observed when meat is stored or ripened in the fridge for many days. It’s important to note that PAHs or HAAs can occur with any meat, not just red meat. Besides well-done meats, the increased risk seems to happen with a higher intake of processed meats. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies nitrates found in processed meats as a carcinogen. During an eight-year period, Harvard researchers tracked the food choices of over 81,000 adults. They found that individuals who had half a serving more of red meat, especially processed red meat, every day were about 13% more likely to die during the subsequent eight years than those who didn’t eat the extra meat. This is significant, especially when you consider that the same amount of unprocessed red meat increased the risk of death by just 9%.
Cancer isn’t the only concern related to meat. Heart disease is as well since the rise of meat consumption has coincided with an increase in the disorder. In 2010, an immense review of 20 different studies that involved over 1.2 million people found that consuming processed meat appeared to increase heart disease risk by 42%. All types of meat have saturated fat and having too much of this in your diet is proven to raise cholesterol levels, which clogs arteries and increases heart disease risk. Also, several extensive studies have shown an association between processed or red meat and type 2 diabetes. The issue with these studies is that the individuals who developed diabetes may have engaged in other unhealthy diet habits. Another health problem scientists are apprehensive about is the link between high intakes of red and processed meat to obesity. A review of 39 studies with data from over 1.1 million people indicated there was a correlation.
There are other apprehensions related to eating meat. Some people don’t believe in killing animals for food when there are other ways to meet nutritional needs. Others object to the environment the animals being raised in since the large, industrial complexes are overcrowded and often don’t allow animals to get sufficient exercise, sunlight, or room to move. In addition, to prevent infection, livestock is often given antibiotics. This leads to antibiotic resistance among microbes and we are being exposed to them when we ingest meat raised this way. Also, many animals are given steroid hormones, like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, to speed growth, which we’re exposed to. Furthermore, the environmental effects of factory farming are significant. A third of the land on the planet is used to raise livestock. These farms are a significant cause of water pollution, soil loss, and deforestation. Animal agriculture is water-intensive and space-inefficient. The amount of land required to support livestock is expected to increase over the next three decades, which decreases the habitable land for humans. The industry produces a wide array of major greenhouse gases and it’s the primary (and growing) source of methane and nitrous oxide gases. These have a more intense impact on climate change than carbon dioxide. With fewer trees, air pollution and greenhouse gases linger in the air longer. This type of pollution currently kills more than 7 million people every year. That number will only rise unless changes are made. In 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) depicted the dire effects of climate change on human health. One is the rise in extreme weather events that cause people to suffer and die directly or through losing their homes, livelihoods, and food supplies. When people are displaced from their homes, infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, can spread rapidly. Water supplies are contaminated from runoff that has pesticides, resulting in toxic algal blooms. A further worry is the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses will expand greatly as standing water becomes pervasive. In 2014, the Global Environmental Change published a study that found lower livestock production in Europe led to 25 to 40 % lower greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence is clear that environmental impacts can cause harm to human health if not checked.
Despite the grim warnings, the separation of “health” and “sustainability” continues. A great example of this is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These are written every five years by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in combination with a panel of academic nutrition scientists. The guidelines determine what goes into school lunches and what’s included in public-benefit programs. During the writing of the most recent guidelines in 2015, the nutrition researchers concluded that a plant-based diet was vital to the continued existence of our species. However, various Republican legislators insisted that this information was left out of the guidelines. Many scientists felt this was the result of political pressure from the meat industry. Not surprising, since the USDA claims that red meat consumption has fallen more than 24% since 1976 because study after study has attempted to tie it to various health problems. The meat industry and other agricultural interests maintain there’s a distinction between the health effects of food production and consumption. In writing the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, health researchers have been strictly forbidden from looking at the environmental impact of food. To write guidelines and totally omit the most pressing human-health issue of our time is incredibly irresponsible and shouldn’t be allowed.
A study released in the fall of 2019 probably made many people in the food industry extremely happy. The controversial report was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and indicated that red meat might not be as bad for us as we’ve been led to believe. The study reanalyzed data from 70 other studies that looked at the health records of six million people. The authors concluded that there’s not enough evidence about the harms of red meat to recommend eating less of it. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated the study indicated that meat consumption should be no more than three 4-ounce servings per week, which is less than the four and a half servings that the average American eats per week. Also, the research did show fewer deaths from cancer among people who ate less red meat.
Critics of the analysis say that a lack of definitive evidence that something is harmful is not a reason to recommend that people do it. They point out that when it comes to studying diet doing a randomized controlled trial is extremely difficult. People know what they’re eating, so it’s impossible to have blind subjects. Also, most people aren’t going to be willing to change their entire diet for decades. This means that most nutrition evidence is based on observational studies. This is where researchers look at large groups of people over time and seeing how their diet relates to their health. These types of studies rely on participants to recall past meals, sometimes as long as a month prior. Even if eating habits are tracked in real-time using food diaries, issues occur because often participants don’t give honest answers and put down eating “good” foods, such as vegetables, while leaving out “bad” things, like meat, sweets, and alcohol. Another consideration is the ability to report portion sizes accurately and knowing the ingredients of the food that is eaten in restaurants. With all of these variables, it’s possible to identify patterns, but it can never be said with absolute certainty which element of a diet is responsible for a specific outcome.
A new study from Northwestern Medicine and Cornell University published in JAMA Internal Medicine this year confirm what experts have been saying for decades. To prevent heart disease and live a longer life, keep red and processed meat intake to a minimum. The researchers examined six long-running studies that looked at what nearly 30,000 adults ate during a 19-year period (some were followed for as long as three decades) and their rates of heart disease and death. The data shows that eating even small amounts of meat increased the risks. Individuals who had two servings of processed meat each week had a 7% higher risk of heart disease than those who didn’t and those who had two weekly servings of red meat had a 3% increase in their risk of developing heart disease. Eating two weekly servings of either type was associated with a 3% elevated risk of early death. Regarding other types of meat, the researchers said further information was needed before any determinations could be made. The study highlights the fact that even small shifts in risk for individuals can indicate huge differences when it comes to public health. For instance, 3% of the entire US population is 9 million people who could die early.
Given the significant evidence that meat, especially in excessive amounts, can have detrimental health effects, it’s a good idea to take a look at your intake. When it comes to processed meats, you should reduce your consumption to almost none. When select other types of meat, look for leaner cuts. This usually falls under the labels of extra lean, round, loin, sirloin, choice, or select (not prime select though). You could also try organ meats since they offer a high nutrient content. When it comes to fish, experts recommend eating more of it than any other kind of meat because it’s high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and very low in saturated fats. Unfortunately, research shows that less than 15% of Americans eat the recommended two to three servings of fish per week. With all other types, moderation is your best bet. Your goal should be to follow the American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommendation of not consuming more than six ounces of (preferably lean) animal proteins per day. It should be split evenly between lunch and dinner. Compared to what most American’s are eating, this is a minimal amount. When you reduce how much meat you’re eating, fill the rest of your plate with healthy foods, like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Numerous studies have found that a high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, monounsaturated fats (olive oil), and fish are associated with better health. The AHA also recommends having less than 7% of your daily calories come from saturated fat. On a scale of most to least saturated fat, red meat is at the top, followed by dark meat poultry, white meat poultry, and fish. For poultry, most of the saturated fat is in the skin. Also, even though pork is technically red meat, many cuts are actually very lean. If you replace these saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats, the risk of death has been shown to be reduced by 19%. When it comes to cooking, minimize high-heat cooking the best you can. If you grill, barbecue, or use other high-heat methods, be sure to reduce smoke, wipe away drippings right away and don’t overcook or char the meat. By doing this, you can reduce PAH formation by almost 89%. Other options are to bake or slow cook the meat. Avoid using butter as much as possible to keep the saturated fats to a minimum. If you’re concerned about how the animals are raised and housed, you can support small farms that raise animals humanely. On these farms, they don’t use antibiotics/hormones and provide the animals with natural diets. This method is often referred to as organic farming. Not only is this more ethical, it’s more environmentally friendly.
For those really set on not consuming meat products, you might be considering an entirely plant-based diet. This type of diet can be valuable since it’s high in fiber and contains many antioxidants. This is associated with decreasing the risk for certain types of cancers, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. However, it’s still possible to be a vegetarian and be unhealthy. It’s vital to eat a wide variety of plant sources to take in complete proteins and enough iron. If needed, you should talk to your doctor about supplements to ensure you get enough B vitamins and other nutrients. Also, it’s important to become aware of fat content in various foods and products. Typically, these are healthier fats, but you can still over-indulge if you’re not careful. Another consideration is plant-based meats. According to the research firm Mintel, 46% of Americans believe that these are better for you than real meat. However, that perception is far from reality. Usually, plant-based meat products have more sodium and calories than lean meat counterparts. For example, a lean beef burger has nearly 20% fewer calories and 80% less sodium than the most popular fake-meat burgers. Besides, fake meat is usually ultra-processed, which the NIH has found to cause weight gain. Their research wasn’t an observational study, but a controlled, randomized one, so the evidence is very compelling.
Due to how nutrition science is studied, updating old findings with new evidence doesn’t mean the initial results were wrong. The problem is that nutrition information seems to waver from one point of view to the complete opposite and back again. This makes it very confusing. Since science is continuously changing due to new and better information, these variations aren’t surprising. When it comes to meat, most medical advice agrees that a moderate amount of meat is not necessarily that bad for you. The critical thing to remember is the type of meat you’re eating, the frequency of eating that type, the amount you’re eating per serving, and how you’re cooking the meat. By being aware of these four things, you’ll still enjoy meat (if you want to) and have fewer health problems while gaining the most benefit.