Is red meat bad for you? (Part I – gathering the facts)

Red meat slices

What you might miss in studies that claim red meat causes cancer

A lot of people who are attempting to eat healthy are searching for an answer to a question that seems to bother vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike – is red meat bad for you?

At first glance it seems to be a no-brainer.  You will find quite a few studies and experiments proving that red meat causes all sorts of bad things – high blood cholesterol, cancer (specifically colon, prostate and breast cancer), high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s and more.

So many studies can’t be wrong, can they?  Should you be worried?

Well, as with many things, it’s the little details and subtleties of the research behind these grand statements that make all the difference.  Most people do not care (or do not bother to verify) whether conclusions made by research were based on relationships that are causative (when a disease is a direct result of one specific and tightly controlled variable) or associative (where disease isn’t necessarily caused by a specific variable, but is merely  associated with it – with no regard given to other important co-variables).

Most people do not read into the details of such research papers.  Ask them a question “why is red meat bad?” and, most of the time, you will hear some mumbling without any specific reference to studies, reports or conclusions.  They will cite some vague reports that eating meat causes cancer, point to some poorly designed study republished by tabloids that links meat consumption and health decline and even refer to their doctor, who also “recommends limiting the intake of red meat” (and, probably, as ironic as it is – doesn’t mind recommending some “whole grains”, instead).  Or, they will pull out their biggest gun and refer to “The China study”, which, on the surface, seems to have delivered a significant blow to the “omnivore human” theory and converted many thousands of scared adults into vegetarianism.

Except – those little details hidden behind smoke screens and marketing messages matter a lot.  In fact, they are the details that can make or break the whole case – and understanding them and using them to arrive at your own conclusions may prevent you from fatal errors that have a profound impact on your health.

Is meat bad for you?  You can make your own call in the end after looking at all the facts below.  Without diving too deep into any religious restrictions or ethical dilemmas (we have briefly discussed these in a previous article on veganism, let’s just see why some people believe meat is bad for you is and whether the data they are using holds up to scrutiny.

Meat consumption and health: the origins of the scare

Ask the people who believe this theory why red meat is bad for you – and you will usually hear references to several factors discussed within this context.  Here are a few of the most common ones:

  • increased risk of cancer due to higher IGF-1 levels;
  • increased risk of kidney disease due to amino acid metabolism by-product overload;
  • increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to saturated fat content

and, perhaps, a few others (again, there is probably no limit to how many associations you can make).

While we have already covered the link (or the absence thereof) between saturated fat / cholesterol and cardiovascular disease in the past, the first two may deserve a separate mention below.   But first, let’s re-establish who the alleged “enemy” is.

What kind of meat?

Any study that cites detrimental effects of meat is only as good as the quality of the meat used in the study.  All meat is not created equal.  With the exception of protein structure – there may be drastic differences in the same cut of meat obtained from two different animals, if one was a healthy grazing cow and the other one lived a horrible life in a confined industrial feed lot, fed a slurry of GMO corn and soy and some animal byproducts, given antibiotics to get fat and, thus, increase the yield and profits and to fight diseases that become inevitable when you compromise nutrition and life quality.

Sure, the protein composition in these two cuts may be the same (with a caveat related to cooking temperature – see below).  But meat is not just protein – mineral/vitamin content and fatty acid profile in fats would be very different.  Case in point – cows who are free to graze on grass (provided that the grass they eat grows on nutrient-dense soil that is not obliterated by the use of herbicides and other chemicals and not depleted by growing monocrops, such as soy, for several years without suggested periodic crop rotation to retain nutrients in the soil) will have a lot of the fat in their body (and, thus – “marbling” in meat) in the form of Omega 3 fats and saturated fatty acids.  That fat will contain fat-soluble vitamins and minerals (fat from grazing cows is often yellowish in hue because it has a lot of carotenoids – precursors to vitamin A – that cows obtain from proper “green” plant diet).  The fermentation of grass in one of their stomachs (cows have four) would produce vitamin K2 – and because it is also fat-soluble, it will be incorporated in the fat.  Grass-fed beef also contains appreciably higher levels of vitamin E, glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase.

By contrast, fat from an industrial feed lot cow will consist mostly of polyunsaturated Omega 6 fatty acids from corn and soy that they are fed.  Because toxic compounds are often stored bound to fat, it would also potentially contain residues of chemicals and drugs that they are fed – intentionally or not.  It will be devoid of proper nutrients and minerals (as the grains and soy they are fed lack their own and further compromise the absorption of minerals that an animal might be getting from somewhere else).

Industrial food manufacturing is very often about lowering costs and improving profits – so when we are talking about processed foods, cheaper, more abundant alternatives win the pot.  Most processed meat products (sausages, hot dogs, canned meat, etc.) start with industrially grown meat.  Processing, then, further degrades the quality of the product by using:

  • High temperatures (see above);
  • Chemical curing and preservation to increase shelf-life;
  • Artificial flavors to enhance the palatability of the final product;
  • Artificial colors to enhance the visual perception of a product that would have otherwise looked dull and grey (yeah, that attractive pinkish hue you see in most processed meats it artificial);
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The list goes on and on… When someone the uses this kind of meat in studies on the effect of its consumption – no wonder the results are dismal.  At the very least, such products would increase inflammation in your body because of their Omega 6 content.  They would further contribute to chemical overload.  They would flood your system with heavily denatured proteins and other byproducts of industrial processing that your body may not know how to digest properly.

This sounds like something very obvious, but it isn’t.  A lot of studies lump all kinds of meat together (like this summary, which concludes that “those who consumed the highest levels of both unprocessed and processed red meat had the highest risk of all-cause mortality” or this reference to research that identified that red and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of several cancers) or do not differentiate at all between the type of meats (or, for that matter – other aspects of participants’ diets).   Problem is – a lot of such “meat” stopped being real meat long before it was consumed by study participants, so it really cannot be used for any comparisons.

Is white meat different from red meat?

It’s typically red meat specifically that is implicated most of the time.  As a result – even people who generally don’t mind animal protein prefer to substitute red meat (typically – muscle meat of large animals) with other types of flesh – such as fish or chicken.

There are, usually, two reasons for this tendency.  The first has to do with a fear of cholesterol – typically, white meat is leaner than red meat (the red color in meat comes from myoglobin – a molecule that is similar to hemoglobin in humans and has a function of carrying oxygen to tissues which use it to oxidize fat for energy – so muscle fibers that do not use fat for energy and rely on glucose, instead, would not have much fat – and myoglobin – around them).  Of course, the whole association between cholesterol and cardio-vascular disease, as we have previously covered is mostly bogus – but it is a very long-held dogmatic belief that very few people dare to question.   So they instinctively go for “leaner” cuts of meat (more on this below).

The second reason is the belief that meat is a potential carcinogen.  Most of the meat used in studies that associate it with cancer is red meat.  As for white meat, such as fish or chicken, the results are often inconsistent.  For instance, this study suggests the correlation is inverse (i.e. – the more white meat – the smaller the chance of cancer).   This one, on the contrary, suggests that white meat is as risky as red meat.  As usual, this is a gross oversimplification and generalization – although, if you look really closely, you will see that at least some of these studies suggest that it’s not the meat itself that may be the culprit, but the compounds that form during high-temperature cooking and processing (still think that processed and unprocessed meat belong in the same category?)

For those who think chickens are, basically, diet food – consider this: the same manufacturing practices and processing that make low-quality red meat so bad is also used with chickens and even fish.  Chickens are actually raised in the most atrocious conditions imaginable – crammed into tiny cages, without having the ability to move their entire lives, de-beaked and de-winged (and often missing other body parts), they get sick and die in many thousands, while still often remaining stuck in those cages with those who are “lucky” to survive for a bit more.  To prevent mass disease under such conditions, they are fed a cocktail of drugs – and often hormones to have them grow faster and get slaughtered quicker.

The last bastion of natural and wild food is falling as an increasingly large number of fish sold in supermarkets these days is also farmed.  Those fish farms – which are similar to industrial feed lots – are used to keep fish in confinement, feed them a slurry of food that they don’t eat in the wild (the ubiquitous GMO corn and soy prevail, once again), and even dyes to give their flesh that desired bright color.  This, once again, drastically changes the fatty acid profile of fish itself. The elusive Omega 3 benefits in fish that you were going after?  Gone!  Instead, the fatty acids in fish fat become Omega 6 (from that corn feed) – as if you needed more of those!  And we haven’t even mentioned mercury yet (which we have discussed in the past!

Of course, there is always an option of going after wild-caught fish or organic chicken.  Nobody is denying the benefits of consuming cold water fish which still remains the best source of Omega 3 fatty acids (which have profound benefits for cognitive development and overall brain and body health).  Nobody is denying that organic free-range chicken would be much better for you (although the whole “organic” certification is a slippery slope – after all, feeding chicken organic corn, while being better than feeding them pesticide-laden GMO corn – still doesn’t quite create the most nutrient-dense bird for your consumption).

The bottom line is – focusing only on fish and chicken because you are afraid of red meat doesn’t make much sense.  After all – red meat has a lot of benefits of its own, as you will see below.

But first – since most people do not eat meat raw – let’s talk about another important factor that plays a huge role – cooking and processing.

Cooking meat

Cooking makes meat more digestible, safer to eat and, for most people, more palatable – but the methods you use to do so can have a huge impact on your health.

This is not surprising, given that, fundamentally, any cooking is a chemical reaction that is induced (or accelerated) by the use of heat.  Most foods contain very many otherwise harmless compounds that, under specific conditions, may interact with each other and form new compounds.  In addition, the food you cook often chemically reacts with the air around it, the medium it is being cooked in and any sauces, dry rubs, dressings and other components you use.

The rate of any such reaction increases with cooking temperature.  In addition, as cooking temperature increases, denaturation of meat proteins becomes an additional factor that impacts these reactions.  Most proteins in their natural configuration are folded in a specific (and consistent) way that impacts their function and reactivity – denatured proteins (those that unravel and unfold) may react differently with the compounds already present or introduced during cooking.

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But very high temperature cooking may have more negative impact than just denaturing (which happens naturally when you digest proteins anyway – just in a more controlled manner).  For instance, when you mix fat naturally present in meat and high heat from cooking – you run a risk of increased formation of Policyclyc Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH).  The reaction of certain meat proteins with sugars present in meat (or introduced in sauces you use) forms Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs) – a source of free radical damage to your tissues – as well as heterocyclic amines (HCA).  All of these are considered harmful and, by the way, are often serve as key factor behind conclusions that meat causes cancer – again, we are back to the question: what kind of meat are we talking about?

If you consider pre-packaged processed meat – the situation gets even worse.  Added into the mix are artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and curing agents – a chemical soup of inedible compounds (no matter how “safe” they are considered by the relevant authorities).  Given that, for cost savings purposes, processed meat often starts out as industrial feed-lot-raised animals (once again, fed terrible, unnatural diets) – the quality of the final product raises even more questions.

Yet, given all these factors that definitely influence the final quality of the meat consumed, nobody seems to be asking the question – what kind of meat is typically used in studies that suggest it is harmful?  This variable is never tightly controlled – in the eyes of those who set up these experiments – meat is meat.

Except – it isn’t.

Nutritional profile of meat: vitamins and minerals hard to get elsewhere

If you are scared by those terrible things meat can become – you can, of course, live as a vegetarian – at least in theory.  It requires utmost control around your nutrients and supplements and puts limitations on certain activities (and also inevitably shifts your diet towards higher-carb – which is not a great option, to be honest) – but you can.

You can argue that you would, then, omit the detrimental effects that potentially come from meat consumption.  But there are a few other things you would be missing.

Any living organism – plant or animal – contains proteins.  Proteins, as you probably know, are essential to life.  Most people think of proteins only when they think of muscle mass – but proteins have hundreds of different functions in your body.  They have structural roles, transport other macromolecules, function as enzymes to catalyze intra– and inter-cellular reactions and, generally speaking, sustain life as we know it.  They form nerves, muscles, hair, nails, bones and everything your body consists of.  They regulate permeability of your cells and uptake of nutrients.  In other words – they are essential for absolutely everything that makes you – you.

There are only 20 amino acids that form hundreds and thousands of proteins that perform the functions described above – what makes these proteins different is the sequence and the number of those amino acids which controls how the final proteins fold and how they react with other compounds.  Of the 20 amino acids, your body can synthesize 11 on its own – from other organic components it has available (obtained from food or otherwise).  But nine of those 20 – those that are considered “essential” amino acids – must be obtained from food because your body cannot produce them.

Food that contains all essential amino acids is called a “complete protein source” – which means that, technically speaking, you could get all your proteins only from that source and still be OK.  Animal products – meat, eggs and dairy – are considered a complete protein source because they contain all essential amino acids (in various proportions).  Omitting animal products from your diet means that to get a complete set of essential proteins you need to “mix and match” several incomplete sources – each of which would have one or more essential amino acids – so that in combination, they would still provide a complete set.  A typical example is a combination of rice and beans.

Is this possible in theory?  Of course – not only it is possible, but quite a few people are already doing that.  The flipside is that most non-animal foods you can consume in theory to get your essential amino acids would be a source of carbohydrates first and foremost.  Consider the content of the above-mentioned rice and beans: beans contain about 70% carbs (compared to a maximum of about 25% protein) and rice – about 88% carbs (vs. about 9% of protein).  These are NOT inherently protein-rich foods – rather, they are sources of carbs, albeit not necessarily bad carbs.

But that’s not all – when it comes to bio-availability of certain compounds – meat beats other sources hands down.

Consider creatine – which supplies cells with energy during short bursts of physical activity. Although it can be synthesized in your body, only one serving of meat provides the same amount that your body is able to synthesize during the whole day

Or think about vitamins – meat (muscle and organ meat) contains several important vitamins that regulate a multitude of functions in your body.

For instance, vitamins of the B group are very hard to get through a natural diet if it doesn’t contain animal products.  Sure, plants also contain some amount of B vitamins – but, typically, in a different, less bio-available form and in much smaller amounts – so that getting your required dose becomes very difficult.

Vitamin B deficiency is one of the most common problems facing vegetarians and vegans – unless it is specifically supplemented in a synthetic form (something that a lot of people just do not do) – and earlier we already talked about other vitamins and antioxidants quality meat has.  So, you can see how not eating meat can potentially lead to some medical problems.

Speaking of medical problems, in Part II of our discussion – let’s finally look at some specific health consequences the studies associate with eating meat – and what you should make of it.

(Part II coming very soon!)