This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.
Over the past two decades, red meat has been increasingly blamed for everything from heart disease to cancer. Newspapers and magazines love to plaster alarmist headlines about red meat across their front pages, but as you might suspect if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, these claims are ill founded and misleading. In fact, an impartial review of the evidence indicates that red meat is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. But before we get into the health benefits of red meat, I want to take a moment to address the growing number of studies that tarnished its reputation in the first place.
I’ve talked in the past about the limitations of observational studies in general, and not much has changed: they still cannot prove causation, and confounding variables still plague even the most skilled statisticians. One of the biggest specific problems with observational studies on red meat is what’s referred to as the “healthy user bias”. Since red meat has been vilified for years in the mainstream press, people who eat less of it are also more likely to less of other foods that are actually unhealthy (i.e. refined sugar, trans-fats, processed foods, etc.) and engage in healthier lifestyle choices (i.e. they are physically active, don’t smoke, etc.). Moreover, Food Frequency Questionnaires are still a problematic way to gather data about dietary intake. (Do you remember what you ate for lunch last Tuesday? Neither do I.) Based on these factors, it’s clear that individual epidemiological studies on red meat can’t prove much of anything, and looking at the body of evidence as a whole doesn’t do much to strengthen this argument.
For example, reviews of studies on red meat and cancer have reported inconclusive results. (1) Most studies show that the data on red meat and colorectal cancer, which has gotten more publicity than most other conditions red meat is supposed to cause, is insufficient to support a clear positive association between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer. (2) If you want a more detailed look at a couple of these individual studies, you can read my assessments here and here.
And despite claims by the popular media and mainstream medical establishment to the contrary, there’s no consistent evidence demonstrating that the saturated fat found in red meat significantly raises blood cholesterol levels. What’s more, large prospective studies involving almost 350,000 participants have found no association between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease (CHD) or cardiovascular disease (CVD) (3). In fact, one large study almost 60,000 Japanese women found an inverse association between saturated fat consumption and stroke: the more saturated fat participants ate, the lower their rate of stroke. (4) As most of you probably know, there’s much more to the cholesterol story than just “LDL = bad,” so rest assured that including red meat in your diet isn’t taking you one step closer to an early grave.
I think it’s safe to say that red meat has been unfairly blamed for the ills of Western society. But in case you still have doubts about ordering the steak, here are some more reasons red meat is actually an extremely healthy and nutrient-dense choice:
Red meat is a rich source of vitamin B12, which is vital to proper functioning of nearly every system in your body. B12 deficiency can play a role in everything from aging, neurological disorders, and mental illness, to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and infertility. Red meat also contains significant levels of other B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folate, niacin, and vitamin B6. It’s crucial to get these vitamins from whole foods sources, rather than relying on government fortification of processed foods, and red meat is one of the easiest ways to ensure adequate intake.
For people who don’t eat a lot of oily fish or receive a lot of direct sun exposure, red meat can contribute significantly to their overall vitamin D intake. (5) Red meat also contains a vitamin D metabolite called 25-hydroxycholecalciferol, which is assimilated much more quickly and easily than other dietary forms of vitamin D. In populations with low sun exposure, meat has been shown to be protective against rickets, a degenerative bone disease caused by severe vitamin D deficiency. (6) Interestingly, consumption of milk with the same levels of vitamin D does not provide this same protection, indicating that the vitamin D in meat is uniquely absorbable and useful to the human body.
Red meat contains primarily heme iron, a form that is absorbed and utilized much more efficiently than the non-heme iron found in plant foods. (7) Furthermore, even small amounts of meat can aid in the absorption of non-heme iron. For people with iron overload conditions like hereditary hemochromatosis, it’s probably best to limit high-iron foods such as red meat, but for most of the population – especially those with iron-deficiency anemia – the iron from red meat is beneficial. This is particularly important for women who are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, as iron is crucial for the growth and development of the fetal brain.
Red meat is an especially important source of zinc, because the other rich sources — organ meats and shellfish — are much less commonly consumed in our country. As with vitamin D and iron, the zinc present in red meat is highly bioavailable, and even a small amount of red meat in the diet can increase zinc utilization from all sources. (8) Zinc is an essential mineral that is an imperative part of many physiological functions, including structure in certain proteins and enzymes, and regulation of gene expression, and those eating meat-free diets are at greater risk of zinc deficiency. (9) Finally, to round out this impressive nutrient profile, red meat contains significant levels of other vital minerals such as magnesium, copper, cobalt, phosphorus, chromium, nickel, and selenium.
Why red meat trumps white meat
Some of the benefits I’ve mentioned thus far are not unique to red meat, but apply to animal flesh in general. For example, levels of B vitamins, vitamin D, and most of the trace minerals are just as high in white meat as in red. (10) However, red meat does have significantly more b12, iron, and zinc than white meat, and those things alone are enough to set it apart. Where red meat really shines, though, is in its fatty acid profile.
The fat of ruminants comprises approximately equal parts of saturated and monounsaturated fat, with only a small amount of polyunsaturated fat. (11) The unique ruminant digestive system ensures that these proportions stay relatively constant, regardless of what the animal eats. This makes red meat a better choice than pork or poultry for those that cannot afford pasture-raised meat, because you will still be getting mostly saturated and monounsaturated fats.
I hope this post has clarified some of the reasons that red meat is such a lauded food in the ancestral community. It’s full of highly absorbable nutrients, and it’s a better choice than pork or poultry if you can’t afford pastured meat. If you were scared of red meat before, maybe some of your fears have been allayed, and if you weren’t, you can feel even better about digging into your grass-fed burger (without the bun!) tonight.