For many years, people across the world have been restricting their consumption of red meat in fear of developing diseases like Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes and even some Cancers. Red meat is a rich source of vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, iron and zinc so it is important to get the facts straight before removing it from your diet all together.
It is important to realise that not all meats are created equal. Processing methods can greatly affect the nutritional composition of red meat products and include smoking, curing and treating with nitrates, preservatives and various chemicals. When light is shed on the different types of meat, it becomes more apparent as to which ones may be problematic to human health.
Extensive research has been conducted on the links between red meat and health. However the majority of studies conducted are observational, meaning that causation cannot be established (1). Moreover, the associations (association ≠ causation) that have been established with these types of studies tend to include poor quality (+/-processed) meat only (table 1.0 rows a-c). Unfortunately, the media does a great job at exploding the story and all types of red meat have taken the hit. For example, The New York Times released an article in October 2015 “Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds”(2). Those who don’t read past the headline (the majority of us) would have missed the crucial fact that they were mainly referring to processed red meat (table 1.0 row a), with a smaller association found for unprocessed read meat (table 1.0 row c). As you may have gathered already, meat consistent with the explanation in row d (table 1.0) doesn’t get used in these types of studies.
Furthermore, an extensive review of 20 studies showed no association between unprocessed red meat and increased disease risk (3). Processed meat on the other hand, was indeed associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the 1,218,380 individuals studied.
Ultimately, research linking red meat to diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are poorly conducted and most are unable to prove causality. The media has scared consumers with weak associations and many people are avoiding red meat altogether as a result. It is likely that highly processed red meat products are bad for human health however high-quality unprocessed red meat has no proven link to disease, and is more likely to provide benefit than risk.
What about the Saturated Fats, Cholesterol & Heart Disease?
Unfortunately, like red meat, saturated fat is often mis-representated and wrongly used to describe typical "junk" or "discretionary" food . For example, The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend us to "Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks." Of course, these foods CONTAIN saturated fat, but what they contain MORE of are simple sugars, refined carbohydrates and trans fats. The recommendation itself is important, however it is not correct to classify these typical junk foods as "saturated fat".
As a result of all this, there are lingering concerns that the saturated fat found in animal products, even good-quality unprocessed meats, full-fat dairy and farm fresh eggs, will increase heart disease risk by raising cholesterol levels. First off, there is no consistent evidence demonstrating that the saturated fat found in red meat raises blood cholesterol levels (4). Many practitioners and researchers argue the case that blood cholesterol levels should not even be used as a marker of heart disease due to the weak science that gave rise to such a correlation in the first place. All biomarkers aside, a meta-analysis involving almost 350,000 participants found no association between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease or cardiovascular heart disease (5).
A trial by Volk further contradicts the perspective that saturated fat is harmful by showing that high intakes of saturated fat (including regular consumption of whole eggs, full-fat dairy, high-fat beef and other meats) do not contribute to the accumulation of plasma saturated fatty acids in the context of a low carbohydrate intake (6). In simpler terms, eating saturated fats, at least from natural whole-food sources, does not cause the saturated fat in your blood to increase.
When we talk about saturated fat - it all comes back to quality. Saturated fat from high quality, sustainably sourced animal products like red meat, poultry, dairy and eggs have not shown to be harmful, particularly considering that these are the types of foods our ancestors thrived on prior to the industrial revolution.
1. Gunnars K. Is Red Meat Bad For You, or Good? An Objective Look2016. Available from: https://authoritynutrition.com/is-red-meat-bad-for-you-or-good/.
2. O'Connor A. Meat Is Linked To Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds2015. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/health/report-links-some-types-of-cancer-with-processed-or-red-meat.html?_r=0.
3. Micha R, Wallace SK, Mozaffarian D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Circulation. 2010;121(21):2271-83.
4. Kresser C. Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed2013. Available from: http://chriskresser.com/why-grass-fed-trumps-grain-fed/.
5. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2010;91(3):535-46.
6. Volk BM, Kunces LJ, Freidenreich DJ, Kupchak BR, Saenz C, Artistizabal JC, et al. Effects of Step-Wise Increases in Dietary Carbohydrate on Circulating Saturated Fatty Acids and Palmitoleic Acid in Adults with Metabolic Syndrome. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(11):e113605.