In the United States, about 51% of adults are considered obese. () Over the past five decades, the percentage of overweight men and women has nearly doubled, while the number of obese adults has nearly tripled. Obesity is linked to an increased chance of developing a number of health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. () The group most at risk is people who are overweight as children and teens, due to the risk of becoming obese as adults. () Red meat, such as beef, pork, and lamb, has been associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease, and those who eat more red meat are more likely to become obese than those who eat little or no red meat. ()
Red meat is one of the most popular meats to eat on the planet. From the US to China, from Brazil to India, and everywhere in-between, people like to chow down on beef, pork, and lamb. But what about the effect red meat has on our health?
Is red meat healthy, unhealthy or neutral? Should they be eaten freely during a low-carb ketogenic diet or should their consumption be limited?
Depending on the expert you talk to, these questions may be answered very differently.
Has a strong link been shown between red meat and heart disease, cancer or other diseases? Will regular use shorten your life or expose you to health problems?
Here’s our guide to red meat information, so you can make an informed decision about whether and how much red meat to include in your diet.
Disclaimer : Many health and nutritionists consider red meat to be potentially harmful to long-term health. A careful analysis of the scientific evidence shows that there is room for debate, given the quality of the evidence on which current conventional wisdom is based.
We recognize that in many of the studies cited, there are both proponents and opponents of meat financing. While the funding source does not refute the data, it does question its robustness. This is one of the many reasons listed in this guide why the evidence on both sides is not as strong as one would like.
This guide is our attempt to summarize current scientific knowledge. It is aimed at adults who are concerned about meat consumption and health.
Discuss any changes in your lifestyle with your doctor. Full disclaimer
What is red meat?
Red meat comes from mammals. In its raw state, it usually looks dark red because it contains a lot of myoglobin, an iron-containing protein that stores oxygen in the animals’ muscles. The red meat category includes beef, pork, lamb, veal, goat, bison, venison and other game meat.
The term red meat can be confusing, however, as veal and pork are often light in color, while duck, as well as salmon and some other fish, have a reddish tinge. However, when we talk about meat from a nutritional point of view, white meat refers to poultry and fish, which contain less myoglobin and iron than red meat.
Red meat can be fresh or processed. Fresh red meat is exactly what it looks like: Meat that does not contain additives should be kept in the refrigerator and eaten within a few days of roasting, grilling, stewing, etc.
Processed red meat is a broader term that refers to meat that has been modified by salting, curing, smoking, preserving or treating with preservatives. The most popular types are bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs and jerky.
The shelf life of different types of meat products is very wide; some meats can be kept in the refrigerator for only a few days, while dried or preserved types can remain edible for months or even years if kept at room temperature. In addition, some processed meat products contain salt as the only additive, while others may contain sugar, starch, other fillers and chemicals such as nitrites.
Benefits of red meat consumption
Animal feeding is an important part of our evolutionary past and has probably played a crucial role in our development as a species. To them is even attributed the development of a large and complex human brain, although evolutionary science is unclear at best on this point. Perhaps we are even genetically conditioned to enjoy the taste and texture of meat from a young age.
Red meat is not only delicious and hearty, but it also offers many nutritional benefits:
- High quality proteins: A portion of red meat (100 g) contains about 20-25 g of protein, depending on the fat content of the meat (lean meat contains more protein). Like eggs, milk and other animal products, red meat provides protein that is considered complete, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids in the amounts your body needs. More on protein:
Protein in a low-carb or keto diet
Guide Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three macronutrients (macros) in the diet and plays a unique and important role in the body. Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about protein in a low-carb or ketogenic lifestyle.
- Various vitamins and minerals: Red meat is an excellent source of many important micronutrients, including vitamin B12, niacin, selenium, zinc and potassium.
- Hem-iron: All red meat is rich in haem iron, which is more easily absorbed by the body than the non-haem form of iron found in plants. Regular consumption of red meat can help increase iron stores and prevent iron deficiency anemia.
- Can help maintain the muscles: It is unfortunate that as we age, due to hormonal and other physiological changes, we tend to lose muscle. In one study, older women who ate 160 grams of red meat six days a week in combination with strength training achieved a greater increase in lean muscle mass and strength than the group who did strength training alone. Similar improvements were found in studies of young and middle-aged men who ate beef and triathletes who took beef supplements, compared with men of similar age who ate a lacto-vegetarian diet or took whey supplements during weight training.
- Can help prevent embrittlement: In a recent study of older women, eating more animal protein, including red meat, was associated with a lower risk of weakness, loss of strength and other changes that typically occur with age.
In addition, animal protein sources can help maintain lean body mass regardless of the level of physical activity.
What does research show about the potential harm of meat?
In recent years, the media has reported on studies showing a link between eating large amounts of red meat and an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Some articles even claim that meat simply kills us.
But how strong are these links, especially when considering all available types of research? Let’s look at the research to date on red meat and disease risk and assess the strength of the evidence.
Red meat and crab
In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a press release classifying processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans. Although the epidemiological studies reviewed by the Committee indicate a link, other studies question the strength of this link.
- Cancers other than colon and rectum : In large reviews and meta-analyses of observational studies, researchers have found conflicting results. A very large meta-analysis has shown that the absolute effect of red meat on cancer risk is extremely low and the reliability of the evidence is low to very low. While some studies have found no link between red meat and cancer risk, others have shown a positive link with stomach, esophageal, breast and prostate cancer.
In the cases where an association was found, the hazard ratios were quite low, ranging from 1.06 to 1.4. In comparison, smoking has a risk factor for cancer of more than 20. Thus, although the data from observational studies point to an association between red meat and cancer, the low risk ratios make the hypothesis that red meat causes cancer less convincing.
- Colorectal carcinoma: Colorectal cancer is by far the most common cancer whose link to red meat has been studied. Here the study showed a more consistent relationship. But again, the relationship is very weak, with a risk ratio that is usually less than 1.4. While this doesn’t disprove the data, the low risk reports raise the question of what is in the meat that could increase the risk. In some cases, the link to colon cancer has been attributed to heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and other potentially harmful compounds created when meat is cooked at high temperatures. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that limiting the high temperature cooking of red meat may reduce a very small risk of colorectal cancer.
Based on animal studies and some epidemiological studies in humans, it has been suggested that heme iron in red meat also plays a causal role in the development of colorectal cancer. However, other studies have shown no link between the use of these substances and the development of colon cancer.
Although many observational studies show that red meat is linked to colorectal cancer, some researchers note that other lifestyle factors may influence these results. Since the risk ratios are low, it is difficult to completely exclude the possibility that high sugar, alcohol and tobacco consumption, reduced physical activity, inadequate vegetable consumption or other factors may have influenced the results.
In contrast to the large number of observational studies, there are very few experimental studies on red meat consumption and colorectal cancer, at least in humans. A study of people with precancerous colon polyps found that reducing red meat consumption for four years did NOT reduce the risk of polyps returning. In addition, in a review of RCTs comparing lower and higher red meat consumption, the GRADE system was used to quantify the strength of evidence. The authors concluded that there was no significant increase in cancer incidence with higher red meat consumption.
In addition, systematic reviews of experimental animal and cell culture studies have shown that the amount of meat tested was often much greater than what most people eat, and many studies did not include the potentially protective whole foods typically consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Although there is strong mechanistic evidence explaining how compounds in red meat or produced during meat preparation can cause CRC, it is important to remember that plausible mechanisms are not sufficient to demonstrate causality.
Red meat and heart disease
Many observational studies have shown an association between meat consumption and the risk of heart disease, stroke and death from heart disease. Others show an association with processed meat, but not with minimally processed red meat.
A large study has not shown a consistent and definitive link between red meat and an increased risk of coronary heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease). However, another large study found an increased risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality, albeit at extremely low levels.
Because many researchers recognize that demonstrating a link between red meat and cardiovascular disease requires a long-term study involving large numbers of people, they prefer to focus on surrogate endpoints. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (considered the strongest evidence of the highest quality) found that eating three or more servings of red meat per week has no negative effect on CVD risk factors such as cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure.
In the 2019 review of RCTs and cohort studies, the GRADE method was used to assign a quality score to studies comparing higher and lower red meat consumption. They found no significant increase in cardiovascular risk as a result of higher red meat consumption, although the evidence was mainly from one of 12 eligible studies and had a low or very low confidence level.
Part of the problem is separating the effects of red meat from other dietary and lifestyle factors. There is evidence that people who eat meat as part of a Western diet high in carbohydrates and high in fat are less healthy than people who do not eat meat. Researchers are trying to control this unhealthy behavior, but it is very difficult. Therefore, they make their best assumptions, which leads to weak statistical correlations and rather uncertain conclusions. The best that can be said is that eating red meat with an unhealthy baseline and a standard Western diet has been linked to heart disease risk, as has a poor baseline.
But what if you don’t follow the standard Western diet? What should you do if you feel uncomfortable at the first examination? Here, the data are much less conclusive about the role of red meat and heart disease.
Instructions for use for saturated fats
This guide explains what is known about saturated fats, examines the scientific evidence for their role in health, and asks whether we should be concerned about the amount we eat.
Another problem is that red meat can increase the level of TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) in the body, which some studies have linked to an increased risk of heart disease. However, it is not often mentioned that the consumption of many other foods, including fish, also increases TMAO levels. Moreover, TMAO production is dependent on the gut microbiota, not just red meat consumption.
As we have written about the inconclusive evidence for an association between TMAO and CVD, questions remain about the role of TMAO as an independent risk marker or causal factor for CAD.
Red meat and insulin resistant diseases
Some studies show that regular consumption of red meat may increase the risk of developing diabetes and other diseases characterized by insulin resistance.
- Diabetes: Several large analyses of observational studies have shown a weak association between frequent consumption of red and processed meat and the risk of developing diabetes. But again, we need to put this link between meat and diabetes risk in a real context: It is possible that many of the study participants also consumed low quality carbohydrate-rich foods. It is important to point out that randomized controlled trials have shown that diabetes can be impressively improved by unrestricted consumption of animal products, including red meat. It is therefore much less likely that meat itself is the cause of diabetes; the risk is more likely to be due to a combination of foods that are generally high in fat and carbohydrates, among other poor lifestyle habits.
- Obesity and the metabolic syndrome : A 2014 systematic review found a weak link between red meat and obesity, but a much stronger link between red meat and a large waistline. An analysis of data from the PREDIMED study, a large study of the health effects of the Mediterranean diet, found that those who reported eating the most red meat were twice as likely to have metabolic syndrome and eight times as likely to have central obesity (defined as a very high waist circumference) than those who reported eating the least meat. This link persisted even after the researchers corrected for smoking, alcohol consumption, calorie intake and physical activity.
In contrast, a well-controlled study of overweight and obese people found that eating 500 grams of lean red meat per week as part of a Mediterranean diet resulted in the same weight loss and reduction in metabolic risk factors as the same baseline diet, but with much less red meat.
And a recent meta-analysis of 24 RCTs found no difference in glycemic control, insulin sensitivity, or inflammatory markers in metabolically healthy individuals during diets in which average red meat consumption was less than 0.5 servings (35 grams) per day, compared with consumption of more than 0.5 servings per day.
How can we interpret this data? In people with a standard Western diet rich in carbohydrates and fats, red meat consumption is likely to be associated with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. However, other studies show that low-carbohydrate diets with red meat are successful in treating type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.
This brings us back to the concept that the overall content of the diet may be more important than the specific consumption of red meat.
Red meat and gout
Gout, one of the most painful joint diseases, is characterized by high levels of uric acid in the blood (hyperuricemia). People with gout are generally advised to strictly limit the amount of red meat they eat.
However, a recent systematic review of 19 observational studies found that red meat consumption was only slightly associated with gout and high uric acid levels, while alcohol and fructose consumption were more strongly correlated with each of these conditions.
Red meat and mortality from all causes
As described in the sections above, numerous epidemiological studies have shown a weak association between meat consumption and an increased risk of mortality. However, these studies also have low hazard ratios, consistently lower than 1.4, and are subject to bias in healthy users and other flaws in epidemiological studies.
Since the data do not show a significant association between red meat consumption and all-cause mortality, it is not surprising that recent large reviews and meta-analyses have not shown an association between red meat consumption and all-cause mortality.
In addition, a 2013 study of Asian dietary patterns found not only no association with an increased risk of death in those who consumed red meat, but also a slightly reduced risk of death from CVD in men and cancer in women who reported the highest meat consumption.
As with cancer and heart disease risk, other foods eaten along with red meat play an important role, as do other health habits. For example, one study attempted to control for these factors and recruited health-conscious participants. They found no difference in mortality between meat eaters and vegetarians.
However, we cannot completely ignore the data that link red meat to mortality. If a person meets the general profile of a subject in many epidemiological studies, i.e. they eat 40-50% carbohydrates, are overweight and have an unhealthy metabolism, then those who eat more red meat have a slightly higher risk than others. Is it meat or some other unhealthy lifestyle? This has yet to be proven.
We should also ask what happens when they consume fewer carbohydrates, lose weight, reverse metabolic diseases and improve their overall lifestyle. In this situation, we have no evidence against red meat.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the list of all red meats?
Beef, lamb, pork, veal, and game.
What is the healthiest red meat to eat?
The healthiest red meat to eat is lean beef.
How often should I eat red meat?
The American Dietetic Association recommends eating meat, poultry, and fish no more than twice a week.
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