People have been arguing over the health benefits of red meat years before nutrition science became a thing. In the early part of the 20th century, conventional wisdom firmly “knew” that red meat was unequivocally good for you. It was even part of a well-balanced diet and found itself nestled comfortably in the USDA food pyramid.
Fast-forward a few decades (and a new millennium) and our attitude toward red meat has shifted. As nutrition science advances, the health benefits of red meat are increasingly coming under the microscope. And it’s not great news for meat lovers.
Disclaimer: This article deals solely with the health implications of consuming red meat. It doesn’t address the environmental impact of raising beef or poultry or the moral implications of eating meat. Both are valid concerns that deserve their own dedicated article, but neither will be covered in this one.
Americans Love Red Meat
It’s easy to see the number of health-conscious diet trends (vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, Atkins, Mediterranean Diet) and think that Americans are eating less red meat than ever. But the facts say otherwise.
In 2018, the average American will eat 222 pounds of meat
Make no mistake about it—red meat consumption in America is on the rise. Domestic production of meat and poultry is set to top 100 billion pounds for the first time ever, and the USDA estimates that Americans will eat a record breaking amount of red meat and poultry in 2018.
The average American is on pace to eat 222 pounds of meat in 2018. And remember, that increase is just per capita. The US population has increased since the last census. That massive demand is sure to strain the (already questionable) methods meat producers use to meet current beef demands.
The American diet is at a crossroads. Obesity affects 1 in 3 Americans, 86 million people in the US are at risk for type 2 diabetes, and heart disease is still the biggest killer stateside every single year. Moderation it seems, is a thing of the past.
Is Red Meat Bad For You?
The answer to this seemingly simple question is more complicated than it seems. It all has to do with the kind of meat you eat, and how often you eat it.
Basically, the more red meat you eat, the higher your risk for cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. The World Health Organization (WHO) even considers red meat a carcinogen. Evidence also shows that heavily processed meats (like lunch and deli meats) are significantly more harmful than fresh meat. Other studies have found higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and some vitamins in grass fed beef compared to grain fed beef, so the news isn’t all bad.
Most doctors “officially” recommend that you reduce your intake of red meat, but there’s still a not-insignificant portion of the medical community that thinks red meat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. “Balanced” being the key word in that phrase. If you eat heavily processed meat every day (and by the looks of the USDA findings, many Americans are doing exactly that), you’re not doing your heart any favors.
Where Does Your Meat Come From?
Humans have been eating red meat for millennia. While it may not have been a huge part of early humans’ diets (gathering was all the rage), many evolutionary biologists argue that the consumption of energy-rich red meat lead to a massive leap forward in our cerebral development. Regardless of how you feel about red meat in our past, everyone can agree that the meat our ancestors ate is vastly different than the meat we eat today (sorry, paleo people).
Red meat in the supermarket isn’t like red meat from even a hundred years ago. In some ways it’s healthier (read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair to see what meat production was like in 1906), but unless you hunt all your food the processed red meat you consider “normal” is anything but.
Back in the day, animals roamed free and subsisted on a grass-based diet #natural. Even after domestication thousands of years ago, ranchers and herders still drove their cattle to grazing grounds every year. And that grass diet and free range lifestyle meant leaner, healthier meat. Today, however the majority of red meat (and white meat) is artificially grown in densely packed farms.
What’s In Your Red Meat?
Beef producers feed cattle a corn sweetened “feed” instead of grass. In fact, most of the corn grown in the US isn’t for people. It’s for the beef industry. Worse, their movement is restricted in close quarters to encourage “marbling” and increase the yield per acre. Aside from a significantly diminished quality of life for the animals, such close quarters result in exposure to fecal matter and spoiled food.
Disease outbreaks are common, so cattle and chickens are regularly dosed with broad spectrum antibiotics, which bioaccumulate in the muscle and fat of the animals (aka the meat). After all that, the animals are slaughtered, processed, preserved, packed, frozen, and shipped across the country. Red meat is a trillion dollar business that’s struggling to meet a rapidly growing demand.
Cramped conditions and antibiotics are one way meat producers are trying to meet demands. Growth hormones are another. Hormones in cattle feed accelerate how quickly the animals mature (i.e. how quickly they can go to market). What once took months, now takes weeks. It’s all about squeezing every ounce of meat from every square foot of farm and feed, and it’s insanely productive. However, the cost of these savings gets passed down to consumers in the form of growth hormones that stay in the meat. And none of them are good for you.
The Health Risks of Processed Meat
Processed meat is associated with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and other health complications. Interestingly, non-processed meat has been linked to improved health and even weight loss. As with most things we eat, the fewer additives the better.
It’s nearly impossible to get red meat today without antibiotics, growth hormones or some form of preservative. However, even free range grass-fed beef won’t do your heart any good if you cover it in oil, deep fry it, and slather it with ranch.
Healthy Ways to Cook Red Meat
Food preparation matters. You can raise grass-fed cows on a lush 100,000 acre ranch, but if you fry that beef for every meal, you might as well have gone to McDonald’s. That might be going too far—but the way you cook red meat affects the nutritional value (and health risks).
Deep fried meat is an obvious health risk, but the deep fryer isn’t the only risk to your heart health. Charring or burning meat is increasingly linked to cancer, as high heat can cause unhealthy compounds to form in the meat. If ingested, theses compounds can have some nasty long-term effects.
Think about it this way: Fire and smoke aren’t great for living meat, so why would they be good for the meat you eat? But don’t panic. You don’t have to cut out grilling or broiling altogether. Grilled meat is delicious. Just try to introduce multiple methods of cooking meat, like stewing, boiling, or steaming from time to time. Bust out that crock pot, and let it simmer.
Everyone Uses Red Meat Differently
The final variable in the great red meat health debate is that everyone processes meat differently. Some people eat beef everyday and live to be 105. Other heavy red meat eaters have a heart attack at 28. Anecdotal evidence aside, everyone is different. Factors like genetics, your microbiome, and even something as simple as a Vitamin C deficiency can affect how many nutrients you get from a serving of red meat. (Vitamin C helps you process iron better). Your body might process moderate amounts of red meat easily, while others struggle. The key is understanding your relationship with red meat, and eating accordingly.
If you eat red meat with every meal, your risks for cardiovascular disease and overall mortality increase. If you limit your red meat intake to one meal a day (or even once a week as many dietitians suggest) and eat meat with vegetables, chances are you’re not staring down the barrel of a proverbial gun.
Red Meat: Good or Bad?
While doctors disagree over certain health impacts of red meat, there’s no need to avoid red meat completely. Moderation is important, as well as cooking your meat properly. Above all, buy unprocessed red meat that’s free of any hormones and antibiotics and you’re off to a good start. If you can afford grass fed or organic beef, even better.
In the words of the famous chemist and founder of modern toxicology, Paracelsus, “The dose makes the poison.” Anything is bad for you in large quantities. Eat good quality red meat in moderation, and there’s no reason to bid farewell to your beloved burger goodbye anytime soon.
Geek Out: More Red Meat Resources
Not enough info for you? No problem. Nerd out on vitamins and erectile dysfunction with research from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. If you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with one of these trained professionals and we’ll get you on the way to a healthier manhood.
- Americans Will Eat a Record Amount of Meat in 2018
- Iron, Meat, and Health
- Effects of Grilling Procedures on Levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Grilled Meats
- A Review of Fatty Acid and Antioxidant Content in Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef
- Risk in Red Meat?
- Health Benefits of the (Right Kind) of Meat
- A Meat Based Diet Made Us Smarter
This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.