Eating Red Meat – Healthy or Unhealthy?

red-meat-resizedFor decades the meat industry has talked about the benefits of eating red meat (meat that is red before cooking, such as beef, lamb, and pork).  They mention the protein content, the iron, the vitamin and mineral content, etc.

The media, and some healthcare professionals talked about its fat content and associated its consumption with heart disease and possibly cancer. Those of us who love a really good steak, either ignored the dire predictions or ate our steaks while feeling guilty.

Is eating red meat healthy or not?  Lets examine the science and medical facts amassed over time regarding this age old question without the passionate rhetoric from either side of the argument.

Population studies have shown that consumption of red meat and processed meat have been associated with CVD, cancer and type II diabetes as well as increases in all-cause mortality. If we take this at face value it sounds like the question is already answered.

After more closely examining one of these negative studies and adjusting for age, body weight, smoking, alcohol, physical activity and family history, the red meat consumption no longer played a role in the findings. (Am J Clin Nutr 1999)

In another negative study, they included processed meats in their definition of red meats and the quality of these different kinds of meat can be enormously different.

In fact, a Harvard medical school study found that unprocessed red meat was not associated with heart disease while processed meat was associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease. (Journal of Circulation 2011).

People who eat red meat coupled with reasonable fruit and vegetable intake should be healthier than people who eat red meat, smoke and don’t consume many fruits and vegetables.  THE POINT BEING… THAT IT’S THE REST OF THE DIET THAT MAY BE IMPACTING HEALTH AND THESE STUDIES JUST LOOKED AT MEAT CONSUMPTION…NOT WHAT ACCOMPANIED IT.


Now, let’s take a look at cancer risk. It is universally recommended due to “convincing evidence” to limit intake of red meat and to avoid processed meat to reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

This recommendation was issued by the World Cancer Research Fund in 2007. They basically state that reducing consumption of red meat will decrease colorectal cancer risk.  Unfortunately, this is NOT what happened and the evidence was not at all convincing. (Amer. J. Clin Nutr. 2009)

Despite a 25% decrease in red meat consumption in the UK from 1963-1998, the rate of colorectal cancer increased substantially. (European Journal of Clin. Nutr. 2002)

The same thing happened in Norway, red meat consumption either stayed the same of decreased slightly and colorectal cancer rates increase by 50%!

Throughout the EU the number just don’t add up.  The UK has the lowest red meat consumption but its colorectal cancer rates is amongst the highest while Spain has the highest red meat consumption but has the 3rd lowest colorectal rate of all EU countries.

Once again all of the largest studies did not separate out red meat consumption from processed meat consumption nor did they examine cooking methods or temperatures of preparing the meat. It is possible that very high temperatures which burn the red meat could increase risk but even this has not been consistently demonstrated.

In fact, there are some studies that show that rare and medium as well as baked meat reduce colorectal cancer risks. But these studies didn’t make it to the public’s attention. (Amer. J. of Epidemiology 2003)

Regarding cancer, risk, it seems that if red meat is consumed along with a healthy diet which included fruits and vegetable there is NO increased risk of cancer.

Now what about the risk of type II diabetes? A large meta-analysis found a 21% increase in type II for red meat consumption and a 42% increase in type II for consumption of processed meats. The researchers themselves said that because they didn’t adjust for other risk factors like body weight and physical activity, they could not be sure the increased risk was due to meat consumption.

A more recent study done by Harvard Medical School in a 20 population study said there was no correlation with red meat consumption and type II diabetes but there was a 19% increased risk with consumption of processed meats.

Nutritionally, red meat is an excellent source of quality protein, a major source of B-12,  and also contains B-6, folate, vitamin A, selenium, zinc, glutathione and iron. Furthermore, many of these nutrients occur in red meat at higher levels than they occur in poultry and fish.

The bottom line is that processed meats are unhealthy and that red meat, especially if cooked properly without burning, (which applies to carbohydrates as well) is probably nutritious and safe and that most if not all studies that said it was bad didn’t take into consideration the other eating habits and fitness of the study participants, which when considered showed little or no effect of red meat consumption on heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Please note, these favorable results were for unprocessed red meats.  Grass-fed red meats may even be healthier.

To the Best of Health,
Curt Hendrix, M.S., C.C.N., C.N.S.
Akeso Health Sciences




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