Fresh grass fed red meat does not cause disease! However, conventional and processed red meat does contribute to disease. It’s full of nasty stuff. Let’s delve in and see what the latest well done research is speculating about red meat.
Does Red Meat Cause Disease?
People do not want to hear that red meat is healthy, but it is healthy in the context of a healthy diet. There is so much controversy about the health effects of consuming red meat. This is due in part to the fact that many studies do not differentiate between grass fed, conventionally raised meat, fresh red meat and processed red meat. These all have different effects on health. Recently, a few studies have come to light proving that fresh red meat is healthful, while health problems lie in consuming processed red meat.
Many studies find that consuming moderate amounts of red meat have beneficial health effects due to its nutrient content (when unhealthy lifestyle factors have been accounted for). (15) You can read more about this in my post on the nutritional content of red meat, Is Red Meat a Superfood? Red meat is mineral-rich in iron, zinc, phosphorus and others. It is also rich in B-vitamins, especially vital vitamin B12, not found in large amounts in other meats.
One of the only studies to date showing a correlation between eating grass fed red meat and robust health is a recent study examining cancer rates among the Amish, which are 44 percent lower than the national rate. And they eat red meat! But they eat only grass fed red meat. Amish food is grown and raised the way it should be, including their grass fed meat, resulting in improved health and lower disease rates. (18)
Processed Red Meat Causes Disease
Processed red meat is found in many studies to be correlated with increased risk of disease. Recent studies, such as a 2010 Harvard University study involving one million people, have studied the effect of fresh versus processed red meat. Processed meat was found to have significant health risks. (4) In 2011, the American Institute for Cancer Research suggested that you should reduce consumption of cooked red meat to less than 18 ounces (28g) per week and avoid processed or packaged meats to reduce cancer risk. (1) That means you can safely eat fresh red meat at least once a week.
One notable study, the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study involved almost half a million people. The more processed meat a person ate, their risk of premature death from all causes increased. However, the researchers found a small amount of red meat to be beneficial, which they suggest is because meat is an important and rich source of nutrients and vitamins. (15)
Red Meats to Avoid
Some meat products like beef jerky, bacon, sausage and hot dogs can be made of very high quality meat (grass fed organic), do not use harmful preservatives and are made with fresh meat. These would be found at high end restaurants, purveyors of fine food and from high end producers like US Wellness Meats. These are okay to eat.
The key to health is to avoid any processed red meat made in large factories by large companies with low quality factory-farmed meat, synthetic nitrites (sodium nitrite) and MSG (monosodium glutamate), a neurotoxin used to add flavor. Avoid these processed meats that are positively correlated with disease unless very high end:
- Beef jerky
- Hot dogs
- Any processed, packaged food with meat
- Frozen pizza with meat
- Canned soups with meat
- Frozen meals with meat
- Ravioli and meat pasta foods
- Kid’s meals containing meat
- Sandwich meat used at popular restaurants (think Subway or any chain restaurant)
- Nearly all red meats sold at public schools, restaurants, hospitals, hotels and theme parks
Does Red Meat Cause High Cholesterol and Heart Disease?
Steve Guyenet does an amazing job of showing that there’s no consistent evidence demonstrating that saturated fat in red meat raises cholesterol to harmful levels, despite claims by the media and medical establishment. (3) Most studies showing a harmful association between cholesterol and red meat consumption are short term. One must pay attention to how long a study was conducted. These short term studies, conducted for only weeks or months, mistakenly conclude that saturated fat increases cholesterol. This is true, but only in the short term. Moderate saturated fat consumption does not increase cholesterol to harmful levels over the long term. Eating grains and refined sugars causes high cholesterol.
One large meta-analysis study involving almost 350,000 participants have found no association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease (17). The solid data I’ve mentioned do not suggest a strong relationship between red meat and heart disease. Including moderate amounts of fresh red meat in your diet will not give you high cholesterol, a heart attack, much less an early death.
Red Meat Research is Rife with Problems
Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for people to discount studies they hear in the news claiming red meat is bad for you. And then they are told by their doctor to stop eating red meat. There seems to be insurmountable evidence for this commonly held belief. Understand that it takes about 10-15 years for research to become common knowledge in the population and even the medical field. This is why most people think that red meat is bad for you – they are basing their ideas on outdated research.
I love how Chris Kresser puts it, “Most red meat research tells us a lot more about the biases of the researchers and the incompetence of the media reporting on it, than it does about the effect of red meat consumption on human health.” Red meat scares have been breaking out for decades due to the following problems in red meat research.
The Healthy User Bias
The biggest problem with studies on red meat is called the ‘healthy user bias’. Since red meat has always been crucified in the media, people who eat less of it or even avoid meat altogether tend to be generally more focused on their health. People who don’t eat red meat in general tend to eat more healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, and less unhealthy foods. They eat less of these foods that are proven to cause disease:
They have healthier lifestyle choices:
- More physically active
- Weigh less
- Eat less food
- Take more supplements
- Don’t smoke
- Little or no alcohol
- More educated on average
Healthier diet and lifestyle choices contribute to an increase in overall health. Many who read the results of these studies take away the shallow conclusion that consumption of meat causes heart disease and an early grave. Conclusions like this cannot be drawn from most studies on red meat comparing them to white meat eaters and vegetarians because of this healthy user bias.
Even in newer studies that attempt to control for the healthy user bias are rife with problems in their conclusions. In recent studies, authors have attempted to account for confounding factors like smoking and drinking. Even so, there’s always the problem of ‘residual confounding’ – confounding factors that could not be addressed or adequately controlled for, which affect the results of the study. These studies only prove that vegetarians and white meat eaters tend to lead healthier lifestyles than the majority of the population that eats red meat.
Toxic Meat Bias
Another huge problem that no one seems to be talking about is the meat that is used in ALL studies on red meat. They all look at conventional meat and its effects on health. Factory-farmed meat, the meat that 95% of people eat, is very unhealthy and can lead to disease. I refer to this problem in red meat research the ‘Toxic Meat Bias.’
Factory farmed meat is raised in horrifying conditions called Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFO’s). Conventionally grown factory-farmed meat is full of so many toxic substances:
- GMO grain feed – this unnatural diet makes the animals very acidic and ill, to the point where many cows have cancer (and other illnesses) and are near death by the time they are slaughtered. Let’s not even get into how GMO’s greatly impact the animal’s – and your – health.
- Growth hormones – hormones to make them grow faster, reducing nutritional quality. They also contribute to cancers and disease in humans, who absorb these added hormones when they consume the meat.
- Pesticides – the GMO feed is full of pesticides, which mimic estrogens in our bodies, contributing to disease in humans.
- Antibiotics – Cramped living conditions necessitate routine feeding of antibiotics to prevent illness and infections.
The grass fed, organic meat our ancestors unwittingly ate is far more nutritious and absent of these toxic ingredients. Biochemically, it is completely different product than conventional meat. Cows and other ruminants like sheep and goats eat grass. This is the only diet that will produce nutrient-rich meat and the healthy fat profile (more omega 3’s) that humans require.
Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. Most studies about diet and red meat intake are this kind of study. They look at what people are eating of their own choosing, follow them for a few decades, and look at how many people contract a given disease or die.
Epidemiological studies about meat intake usually tell us less about the risk or benefit of eating meat and more about people’s propensity to lie or to not recall exactly how much hamburger they ate. Bottom line: these studies can only conclude that there is a correlation between eating red meat and heart disease or early death. No study of this kind can confirm that red meat causes heart disease and early death.
However, when the media report a brand new study, which has not been replicated, this misleads consumers into thinking that studies merely correlating red meat to disease are the final word in health. It’s just not the case.
Study Author Bias
Chris Kresser has this to say about red meat research, “Much of it is worthless propaganda parading as medical research brought to you by the tyrannical meat-hating scientific majority.” Most in the scientific community vilify red meat because this is the status quo. Humans, including those in the research and medical community, are slow to accept and adopt new ideas – that red meat might actually be good for you.
This status quo and study authors’ beliefs can easily bias the results substantially in whatever direction they prefer. Frequently, when the establishment doesn’t like a study’s results, they are quietly swept under the rug. They can also omit things they don’t like or that don’t support their hypothesis.
Paul Jaminet, author of The Perfect Health Diet states it eloquently:
… Now when I look at how other people interpret the literature, I usually see they’re very strongly influenced by their own field, their own specialty, and they usually don’t take into account evidence from other specialties very much…Experts know a lot. But they also have a limited perspective and that can easily mislead them about diet.”
False Study Conclusions
An excellent example of conclusions that cannot be drawn from a study’s data is The China Study. This 30 year ongoing study is attempting to ascertain the diet and lifestyle factors that cause cancer and other diseases. The author, T. Colin Campbell, claims that consumption of meat and dairy cause cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, etcetera – collectively known as the diseases of Western affluence. However, the study excluded data showing that many populations that eat high animal protein diets and have very low disease rates. I’m assuming these were excluded because they did not fit within the framework of the author’s desired conclusions.
A lot of scientists, many of whom are not in the nutrition field, have debunked the China Study’s misleading conclusions simply looking at it from a sound research perspective. Colin Campbell’s conclusions that consuming meat and dairy lead to disease simply cannot be drawn from the data in an epidemiological study of this nature.
The Claimed Effect is Small
Statistically small effects cannot be generalized to the population. I find it funny when newspapers splash headlines about the latest study vilifying red meat, when statistically, the study’s results are almost irrelevant. But those headlines sell newspapers!
You should eat about one-half to one pound per day (.23-.45kg) of all kinds of meat to satisfy your nutritional needs. Of this, red meat should be consumed at least once a week. This will not cause any harm if accompanied by healthy levels of plant foods (about 3 pounds or 1.35 kg per day). Any more animal protein than this can lead to health problems and reduced life span according to Dr. Paul Jaminet, author of Perfect Health Diet. (5) Red meat is good for you, but I’m not suggesting you order a huge prime rib a few times a week!
About the Author
Wendy Myers, CHHC, is a certified holistic health and nutrition coach. Her passions include getting you healthy, The Modern Paleo Diet, retoxing and detoxing. Look for her new book coming soon, When Diet and Exercise are Not Enough: Roadblocks to Weight Loss. She is the founder of Liveto110.com. Liveto110.com empowers you to improve your health through the Paleo diet, nutritional balancing, detoxification and natural treatments for your health conditions.
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