Red Meat: It Does a Body Good! | Chris Kresser
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Red Meat: It Does a Body Good!

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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.

Beef. It’s what’s for (a healthy) dinner. Tweet This

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:

B Vitamins

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.

Vitamin D

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.

Iron

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.

Other Minerals

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. If you’re looking for great quality meat I would recommend ButcherBox.

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  1. Confused.com! Iron is a nutrient I am really struggling with because I cannot, for the life of me, see how men and women can receive the 8 and 18mg respectfully of iron per day if they do not consume heme iron??? If you also take into consideration only a third of iron is absorbed from meat, AND the fact that cooking transforms some heme iron in meat into the harder to absorb non-heme iron, AND the fact that we also eat foods which bind with iron and restrict absorption (dairy, eggs, tannins, phytates etc) then I really am struggling as to why we are advised not to eat lots of red meat every day? I know blue zone populations consume little heme iron but maybe their health and longevity is due to them not consuming vegetable oils and foods containing them? Or maybe we don’t need as much iron per day as is recommended?…..what a confusing/frustrating situation to be in! Arghhhhhh!!!

    • Yes Mark…. Nutrition is hell confusing, I found myself asking similar questions a few years ago. The problem is… there is no real answer, we might need more red meat, we might not. Who the hell knows. There might be other nutrients we are not even aware off!!!!!.

      That’s why, to me, the best way to deal with it. Is trust nature and evolution. Just do what we did for 300,000 years… paleo diet… Although I am not 100% Paleo, I try to focus my main nutrition on the paleo diet. Let me tell you, since I started being “almost paleo” I’ve been the healthies I’ve ever been!!! I am also a powerlifter, which helps, a lot.

      So… embrace the whole foods. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING PROCESSED. Look at ingredients of EVERYTHING you buy, not the nutrition level. All that crap they put in process food and sugars is a clear NO.

      Look at it this way… A cat has been designed to kill and eat prey, and has evolved eating a purely meat diet. If you try and give your cat (most cats) rice, or bread by itself he WONT eat it. If you give it chicken, meat, pork, fish, he’ll love it. Cheap cat food hides carbs in it, and it is low in animal protein, thus making cats OBESE. The healthiest a cat can be, is by eating a purely meat based diet (I cook for my cat, and he is extremely healthy).

      We are a little bit more complex than cats. We were purely hunter\gatherers (meat, fruits, veggies) for 300,000 years and farmers for 10,000 years (farmed meats, grains). However, we still thrived and evolved on highly nutritious animal meat. Trust nature, trust history; it has more than 300,000 years worth of data!!!

      • Here are a few books about migration from the middle east to the british islands. The interesting thing is that the majority of peoples followed the coast and ate seafood…the huge majority. There were a few overlanders who ate cattle type animals, but a realtivly small number. Can you speak to this?

  2. OK so I may or may not be a qualified expert although I have some expertise and sense in what I say. This is the following. I have known vegetarians and vegans and challenged them

    One thing is that regardless to what pop media is telling people, almost any person with sense has known over the years regardless to their age knows that fat from red meat and milk and pork is funny enough NOT correlated with weight gain, and that people who actually eat full fat dairy, beef and pork have LOWER body weight, actually, than those who are on low fat vegetarian or vegan diets. In other words vegetarians and vegans and low fat dieters are MORE likely to be obese, if you want to know, not less. The group that consumes what they do not is actually more likely to stay slim

    One reason is that many of them substitute these foods for high calorie foods that are much less nutritious (yet alone low calorie foods which are) and are often looking for snacks. They end up eating food like guacamole and corn which cause one to put on weight faster than fat in dairy and meat products. Look at lots of articles today and they will tell you this

  3. Did anyone actually read that study?

    “For example, reviews of studies on red meat and cancer have reported inconclusive results. (1)”

    which links to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21540747

    From what it sounds like, every single one of those t-tests was significant, then they said those results were marginal and didnt matter. How did that study get published?

    • Quote from the study “In the high versus low intake meta-analysis, the SRRE was 1.12 (95% CI: 1.04-1.21) with significant heterogeneity (P=0.014).”

      P < .05 means that the probability of a general negative event occurring among the high intake group is statistically significant

      "The SRREs for colon cancer and rectal cancer were 1.11 (95% CI: 1.03-1.19) and 1.19 (95% CI: 0.97-1.46)," "

      Confidence interval not including 1 indicates that people are more likely to get colon cancer, but rectal cancer was not significantly different

    • I’ve been eating red meat for over 60 years Proably 4× a week my health is in great shape the doctor tells me to keep doing whatever I’m doing I’m 71 years old and very active….

  4. It seems that limiting carbs is the real issue. I feel guilty consuming animals especially chicken right after I make an egg
    omelet but I think that our body needs to consume animals. I wish every creature could live a long life but the reality of human existence is that we are omnivores.

      • Don’t worry about it, when we consume an animal or a plant we are raising its soul to the realms of the spirits , all energy continues to exist, it is the body that dies. The spirit carries on for eternity . It’s hard to believe what that cannot be measured by science but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.
        I was vegan for two and a half years and every now and then I felt fatigued mind shattered and weak , and every time the solution was meat that cured it, finally i decided to listen to my body and be an omnivore again, My health improved sense then.
        Moderation is the key like everything in life.
        Remember that all life consumes life. 🙂

        • My worry is that, instead of raising the animal’s soul UP, I may be bringing my own soul DOWN by eating animals. Does that happen, do you think?

          • You’ll bring your soul down if you believe in it , and also up if you believe in it.
            In reality it doesn’t matter. All energy is life , if you’ll eat just plants, legumes etc you’ll consume life also it is just life that can’t run from you.
            Who are we to judge which life has a higher priority.
            From my experience as a vegan my nutrition was in very bad condition, especially my mental health (memory, concentration , serotonin and dopamine equilibrium), but you just have to try different things and see what is good for you.
            When I feel confused about such subjects, I tend to look at nature and except the naked truth.

        • Veganism is an ethical diet with least pain and suffering, animals dying in a horrible way is not cycle of life. Beans and nuts don’t have a nervous system, the animals we consume do and their screams are also proof of their pain. If you don’t want to put higher priority then what you are saying is that eating human babies and beans are equivalent since who are we to judge?

    • Do you mean carnivores and realky I feel the opposite. I don’t think we should be torturing something and then eating it. I thought humans were supposed to be decent? We just really do what we want. I can’t believe I did it for so long

      • LOL omnivores-eats planes and animals. Howard was saying that humans were meant to eat both. I try to eat fresh farm animals, and none of them are tortured nor mistreated. Just depends on where you’re getting your meat.

        • Farm animals are also killed and due to higher request for farm animals, treatment is not as well as you think.

      • No Michelle,
        Howard Hughes DID mean omnivores. This is an animal or person that eats food of both plant and animal origin.

    • I agree. Every vegetable on this planet from what i have seen is considerably higher in copper then zinc. From what i have learned if you do not consume meat every day you will most likely have higher amounts of copper in the body then zinc, causing a toxic imbalance that may result in many diseases including cancer seeing how zinc is responsible for DNA repair. I have also read that mummified autopsies of Inuit show a diet high in animal/whale/seal fat will in fact cause plaque of the arteries.
      http://www.meandmydiabetes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Atherosclerosis-in-Pre-Westernized-Inuit.pdf
      An intake of vegetables and meat seems to be likely for ones optimal health. Our past being our best scientific study. Life expectancy was shorter but if your had an infection from anything that was it. Zinc is essential and can only come from meat source. Pumpkin seeds are very high in copper especially if grown in zinc deficient soils. There is no other way to get your daily amounts of zinc if you do not consume adequate amounts of meat.Further more Carbohydrates deplete the body of zinc and surely can be responsible for diabetes that has become very common today. If you eat out of your environmental niche you will develop mineral deficiencies that will cause incredible amounts of mental and physical aliments, whether or not you get cancer in the process. A wolf can not just decide to be a vegan and if it did it would not last very long.

  5. Who cares whether red meat is good for us or not. That’s such a human centered question. Perhaps you should think beyond your own self interests.

    Does eating red meat contribute to a healthy environment?

    Does eating red meat cause animals to suffer and die?

    Those are the questions you should be asking yourself.

    • The question should be, “Is the meat you consume from an animal raised sustainably and without cruelty.” I love animals and would be Vegan if I could, but considering genetics and how my body best functions, I need to eat meat and am now leaning towards the traditional foods of MY ancestors. Some people may thrive on a Vegan diet if their ancestors primarily ate that way, but ask yourself whether it’s really natural. Do you have to take supplements? If so, your diet is insufficient for your dietary needs.

      • Unless you killed that animal with your hands, you can’t know if that animal on your plate was treated well.

    • Mike
      What if I told you that everything in existence has a purpose and furthermore that animals purpose was to be born and to live and then to be killed in a humane way (kosher slaughter where animal feels least amount of pain possible )and then to for a blessing to be said after (grace ) and by doing so the animal soul gets elevated .

      In a world where there is obmg physical not spiritual it can be argued that it may be cruel ,you would still lose the argument because I’m sure you would agree that humans at more important than animals. Right?
      And that each person has different needs and Some may need more meat than others (part of it maybe psychological vs physiological but that is another discussion altogether).

      What I will add is that eating huge quantities of meat or anything else for that matter without a balanced approach is just plain silly so instead of eating multiple pieces of steak perhaps just 1 or 2 would suffice if there was a vegetable and maybe some rice added.

      On a personal note I eat meat only occasionally lets say 1-2x /week and haven’t had a good steak in a while and I had steak 2 nights in a row with rice and vegetables.

      I have felt stronger after and really felt that my body needed the meat. I think ideally although I am not an expert that the vegetables and rice should be eaten prior to the meat or lets say chicken to give them a bit of a chance to start digesting as opposed to eating veggies after the meat and taking the chance that it will eat and ferment.

      So the next time you think you are being good to the animals you might actually being cruel to them and even worse you are being cruel to your fellow human by casting an evil eye in his actions

      • Hi Eli, (קבלה) when we consume an animal or a plant we are raising its soul to the realms of the spirits , all energy continues to exist, it is the body that dies. The spirit carries on for eternity .
        I was vegan for two and a half years and every now and then I felt fatigued mind shattered and weak , and every time the solution was meat that cured it, finally i decided to listen to my body and be an omnivore again, My health improved sense then.
        Moderation is the key like everything in life.
        All life consumes life. ?

    • If you believe eating a burger is the same as mass murdering the planet, you might have a neurological disorder and should probably get checked out. Our bodies need everything in moderation. We are designed to consume limited amounts of meat, veggies, sugar, etc. If you need to eat veggie burgers to feel ok with yourself, so be it. But vegans: please stop guilt tripping others. Focus on the actual issue: the way animals are treated. Humane killing should be the subject, not looking down on people who enjoy a burger.
      I dated a vegan. It was constant preaching, guilting, etc. The worst relationship I ever had!
      And btw, I love and respect all animals. I also need them to survive and be healthy. I had anemia and my doc said I needed to eat more, especially iron rich food.

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