There are a lot of controversial topics in nutrition … should we eat 3 meals per day with no snacks, or snack periodically? Are egg yolks good or bad? Is vegan the healthiest way, or are you missing nutrients from animal products? Should we take supplements, or get our nutrients from food?
One of the hottest topics lately has been … is red meat healthy? Or is it harmful? I get asked this question frequently by health coaching clients, and so I thought I’d take a crack at it here. Of course, this is an enormous topic, and it’s impossible to include my entire opinion in a single blog post. However, I’ll do my best to lay out the basics of my thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours as well!
- Because this is such a popular topic, every new study makes headlines, and is often sensationalized. Just last month, the Washington Post reported on a study showing that those who ate high levels of animal protein in middle-age were four times as likely to die of cancer than those who ate low levels of animal protein. Scary, right? Well, 13 days later, the New York Times reported on a study showing that saturated fat does not lead to higher risk of death, after all. (picture source)
- I love this research, so I read as much as I can, and reading from both sides helps me identify overlap and conflicts, and eventually form my own opinions. I’ve read books, articles, blog posts, and so much more – it’s fascinating to me! (picture source)
- There is a significant body of research showing that red meat is associated with increased risk and decreased health. Frequently-cited studies showing the detriments of red meat include:
- Harvard School of Public Health Study, showing that red meat is associated with increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality. They showed that replacing one daily serving of red meat with nuts was associated with a 19% lower mortality risk!
- Looking into that same data on the same Nurse’s Health Study showed that red meat raises risk of diabetes, and also raises the risk of heart disease, and increases mortality from all causes.
- The NIH-AARP study (also done on over half a million people) also showed that higher meat intake was correlated with higher risk of death overall, and death from cancer. (picture source)
- However, almost all of that research has serious “red flags.” A majority of the research in the “meat is bad” camp is done based on the Nurse’s Health Study, which is well-regarded since it was done on tens of thousands of people, over dozens of years. However … it was an observational study, which means it asked people to report on what they did eat, rather than manipulating their intake. This leaves a ton of room for error. It also didn’t monitor for meat quality (see #5!), type of meat, and many other things that could really mar the results. It did control for “major” health indicators like smoking, alcohol consumption, and vegetable consumption, but health is an exceedingly complex puzzle, and it’s not something that we can really “control for.” It is definitely possible, since the studies showed a correlation and not a causation, that something else was causing all the increased mortality in these hundreds of thousands of people. So … there’s a lot out there, but we can poke holes in it quite easily. (picture source)
- Quality really matters when it comes to red meat. This is the really important one!!! Meat quality makes a huge difference. Processed meats like sandwich meats, hot dogs, commercially-produced sausages, are far less healthy in general – due to the nitrates, sodium, and other additives, as well as what processing does to the meat itself. Commercial meat adds a whole slew of other potential issues, including hormones, antibiotics, and varying nutrient quality of meat from cows who have been fed unnaturally. When studies group processed meats in with high-quality meat, they do show that red meat causes health risks. But when high-quality meat is isolated, the risks are eliminated.(picture source … sorry if this makes your stomach turn!! But, I know we’ve all seen pictures of “pink slime” before)
- Bioindividuality strikes again. I truly do believe that there are some people who thrive on red meat consumption, and their bodies crave and efficiently use the nutrients it delivers. I also believe that there are others who feel sluggish, nauseous, or have digestive problems after eating red meat, and I don’t think they should force themselves to eat it. (And, of course, I believe you can be healthy without eating red meat if you choose not to for any reason). In the end, it all comes down to what works for your body, and that is what I help clients figure out through health coaching. (picture source)
- My overall opinion: Like almost anything, it’s all about balance and moderation. Especially if you are eating high-quality, grass-fed, organic red meat, I believe it can be enjoyed as a part of a healthy diet! At the same time, I definitely believe that the “average American” is eating too much red meat (about 114 pounds per year, or about 5 ounces per day, which is about two servings). Two servings every single day, 365 days per year, of something that has been shown in any studies to have some risk seems a bit excessive to me personally. Unfortunately, I also believe that the meat the “average” person is consuming is of very poor quality, which makes the problem a lot worse. I personally eat red meat on occasion (I enjoyed filet mignon and bison steak on my birthday this year!), but I do my best to ensure that it’s high quality meat. That’s what works for me, but I recognize and respect that there are different things that work for different people. (picture source)
Note: This is obviously a sensitive topic. I believe that the reason we hear such passionate (but often polarizing) thoughts from either side is that the people who are speaking “loudest” are those for whom one way is working. It’s rare (but admirable) to see a book that talks about how the author tried veganism but it wasn’t working well, or watch a movie about how the lead character tried Paleo but just didn’t feel great. Instead, the people who are proclaiming their thoughts (in an effort to help others) are those who feel amazing! And that’s great for them, but in my opinion, it still does not mean that one style of eating will work for everyone. All this to say … please share your opinions here, but please be respectful as well.
So tell me in the comments … Do you eat red meat? What are your thoughts on the “is red meat healthy” debate? Any more questions on the issue?
Just now getting caught up on your blog. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than a decade mostly because I just think killing is wrong. Heck, human meat might have some nutritional benefits too, just less research about it than cow meat. I just can’t see justifying the death of another creature if it’s not necessary. I totally know this wasn’t the point of your post, but I think putting cruel pain and death into one’s body isn’t good for anyone morally (you are what you eat) and felt someone had to say all that for the record!
Thanks for sharing your opinion, Carina!
I do eat red meat but I have to say after hearing so much of the research (even if it is flawed) I have pulled back on how much I eat. I tend to feel and function better with my digestion when I have less red meat and more plant based food or other meats like chicken or fish but I have it maybe 3 times a week.
Very interesting topic and love all the research you did for this post.
I’m really glad you’re learning about what works for you, Jan! Sometimes it’s really hard (but worth it!) to listen to our bodies and react as you are doing.
Having been a vegetarian my whole life I totally agree that red meat is not the healthiest. I somehow married someone who eats a ton of meat and no vegetables-go figure! This has been a challenge over the years to say the least. I try to let our children make their own decisions about their diets but hope that they will see the way that I eat and choose to model those behaviors more. Good topic for discussion.
I think that being a good role model and providing information is the BEST thing you can do for your kids, Deborah! When I see parents who are too restrictive or pushy, it seems like those kids always “rebel” by eating the “bad” food when they’re out of the house.
Such a great post! I completely agree that moderation is key and the importance of the quality of the meat. I don’t think some people realize what poor quality some of the red meat out there can be.
I agree, Amanda! I think the “pink slime” scandal got some people thinking about quality, but we still have a ways to go!
This is why your blog is a credit to the blog world- You never make accusations, judgements or preach a certain mean- you highlight both sides of the fence and provide RESEARCH.
The red meat debate, as with anything else food related will always have both sides and as a big red meat eater, I appreciate both sides of the fence and definitely take into account moderation. Just like my white bread, white sugar and processed consumption- it’s all about balance.
THANK YOU! I so appreciate those kind words. I always aim to be judgment-free and just present my thoughts and what I believe to be compelling research. Balance is one of the best words in the dictionary, in my opinion – there’s room for everything if you practice balance!
Yes, thanks for the great post & pointing out that a lot of the research isn’t clear! There’s nothing saying red meat “causes” different diseases. I know you read my post a little bit ago, but totally agree. I think balance and quality matters most. The one thing that gets me is it’s been so demonized that clients come in afraid to eat red meat but are eating so many other processed foods.
I hear you, Lauren! In today’s day and age, it’s almost impossible to never touch anything processed, but trying to limit our consumption is a huuuge step in the right direction!
I am not a fan of telling others how to eat, other than to say buy higher quality food and keep the crap to an absolute minimum (I usually put it better than that).
As someone who has done a LOT of science-based research and follows a Paleo lifestyle, I am going to say that red meat is NOT bad for you. However, the quality and quantity of consumption is what matters. Organic meats, fruits, and veggies, are practically a requirement in my home. More expensive, but better than high doctor’s bills.
I love how you put it, Irene! Yes, organic can be so important and is often worth the extra money! Glad you’ve found what works for you!
Great post!!! Well you know I have talked to you about this before and my thoughts. I think it’s so important that you mentioned bioindividuality as well as the quality of meat – definitely the two “biggies” I think about 🙂 happy weekend friend and happy Easter! xoxo
yes yes! i was going to say the same. Red meat (the good kind) is GOOD for you. But it can get pricey. I think everyone has to figure out what works for them. But all in all, the nutrients in grass feed meat are good for the body, so we need to make sure we are getting those nutrients in some form.
Couldn’t agree more, Lindsay! I’m slowly increasing my intake of (high-quality) red meat, just for the nutrients. It’s all about quality and moderation, in my opinion!
Yes! And you’ve made such admirable changes to your own diet! You know I love following that!
No I don’t eat red meat or any meat for that matter. That said, you will never hear me say everyone should be a vegan. It’s been a period of trial and error and experimenting to find what works best for my body and makes me feel the best. I don’t think there is one type of diet the is “best” for everyone but I do think there are a few basic clean eating philosophies that are good for everyone.
I’m so glad you’ve found what’s best for you, Jill. I love self-experimentation!
And once again THIS is why I love your stuff, Megan! 🙂
As you so perfectly pointed out, so often what we hear is a filtered interpretation that has been positioned as a binary choice in order to sell magazine / draw hits for a website. The actual scientific work in many cases is a lot more narrow in both scope and findings.
I think one of the worst things has been how ‘red meat’ has been used as the ‘other’ category … in other words, you get all the crap meats thrown into that category, so rather than lean grass-fed beef you are seeing the effects of bologna and bacon!
Also, the same government-industry consortium that brought us the notion of fat = bad, HFCS, and so on … is also responsible for cows being fed corn that they would never eat in the real world, which messes with the quality of all products from the cows.
We are definitely omnivores in our house, but don’t eat a ton of beef – we had steak last night for the 3rd time this YEAR … and every meal contains both cooked vegetables (generally grilled or roasted) and salad. The last couple of years has been a transition away from the meat-potato-veggie hierarchy … and it is a good thing that leaves you satisfied without being weighted down!
I have expressed my concerns with supplements (not ones that are medically necessary, of course), and I have really boiled it down in my head lately: my concern is that they are the latest in a long line of excuses for not eating a proper diet. My mother got to her pre-baby weight exactly ONCE after having kids – in 1976 for the bicentennial (have great pics).
How? The doctor gave her diet pills – not ‘eat less and exercise’ advice. Then we have moved from one plan to the next, all of which are selling product (books, DVDs, meal-plans) … and way too few actually teach people how to eat in a way that is healthy and sustainable. I fear that people use them as a first choice rather than as a true supplement to healthy habits. I fear that like those who use juicing or detox to hide disorder, some use supplements rather than actually eating. I see way too much active disorder in the running & ‘healthy living’ blog world as it is …
My other fear about supplements is also that they are unregulated – you are completely at the mercy of people being honest … and let us not forget that food labels and entire government agencies exist because given the chance food makers will lie. We get all up in arms about grass-fed beef, but there are many issues with supplements as well.
Enough of that … 🙂 My final thought is the importance of the potion sizes you linked. I was brought with the understanding that a 4-5oz piece of meat was ‘a portion’. When you go to a restaurant and see an 8oz steak it looks TINY! We watched Philomena while the kids were away and laughed at the whole portion size thing she mentioned about America … but it is true.
Thanks again for another thoughtful post!
Thank YOU for such a thoughtful response! This is full of gems, and I’m sorry for responding late. I couldn’t agree more with everything you say about quality and the false marketing we’re subjected to (fat-free, HFCS). The idea of processed meats being lumped in with high-quality meat is the worst! Just thinking about how I used to make fried bologna sandwiches makes me shudder :).
Your red meat consumption sounds similar to mine now … for the past 8 or so years I’ve probably eaten red meat about 2x/ year, but in the past year or so I’ve been trying to bump it up to once per month just for the nutritional benefits. It’s so expensive, and just not quite as easy to prepare (for me), but I really enjoy it when I have it.
Great points once again on the supplement issue – so many problems there and hard to navigate that world!
I agree that moderation is definitely key, and that most people in America eat way too much read meat. I also think that with the way animals are treated and fed today, organic grass-fed red meat is the way to go, but unfortunately it’s very expensive. Because it is so expensive, my husband and I don’t normally eat read meat because we can’t afford to buy it often.
I feel your pain, Becky! I think you’re smart to enjoy higher-quality meat a bit less frequently. I have never done this so I can’t speak from experience, but I know for sure that buying “shares” of a cow from a local farmer is a super economical way to get a lot of high-quality meat, as long as you have a lot of freezer space (which I don’t). Might be something to look into!
Such a good post Meg!!!! I’m all for people finding diets that work for them but I feel like people preaching moderation of everything are few and far between. It’s refreshing to see someone taking the time to read the research critically and making decisions based on this, not just reading a book telling you to “eat all the red meat!” or that meat is bad for you. Thank you for this!
Thank you for this nice comment, Davida! Yes – I am pretty much about moderation in all things … red meat, ice cream, you name it. 🙂
I have to agree that moderation is key! A person’s health is much more than just one thing, so someone may choose to not eat red meat but eat french fries and drink soda at every meal and may not be as healthy as someone who has high-quality meat a few days a week. But like you said, there is probably not one “right” answer for everyone. When I started to live a healthier lifestyle around the time I was finishing college, I stopped eating red meat because I thought it was “fattening”. A few years later I was told that I had low iron. I was still kind of afraid of red meat, so I took iron supplements. My views on healthy eating have changed so much since then, and now I enjoy red meat about once a week. Honestly, I love a big juicy burger, and I can’t believe I missed out on that for so many years:)
I’m so glad you’ve found what works best for you, Lisa! I loved hearing your journey! As for me – I don’t really crave burgers at all, and would probably rather have a turkey burger taste-wise (crazy, I know!), but I love having steak every once in a while!