Is Red Meat Essential In Your Diet?

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Red meat: the steak in your Philly Cheesesteak, the burger in your BBQ Bacon Burger, and the sizzle on your grill.

I don't know about you, but there are few things I enjoy more than a properly cooked piece of beef (or pork). Something about the rich, meaty goodness with just a hint of salt and pepper makes for one heck of an epic meal.

Red meat has gotten a pretty bad reputation in the last few decades. With saturated fat believed to be the "devil" behind heart attacks, most nutritionists and diet "experts" advised reducing red meat intake. Add to that hormone injected into cows, a higher calorie content, and the increased risk of gout, and you have good reasons to cut back on red meat, right?

But is red meat really all that bad? On the flip side, is it really all that good? How harmful/beneficial is red meat? Should you be trying to avoid it, or can, you go nuts and eat as much as you want? THAT is the question I intend to answer today…

Benefits of Red Meat

Aside from its delicious flavor (sorry, vegans and vegetarians, I just can't find it in my heart to not love meat!), there are many things that make red meat a good addition to your diet:

B Vitamins -- Your body needs more B vitamins to function, as the vitamins play a role in your immune health, metabolic function, brain health, and so on. Vitamin B12 is one of the most important of the B vitamins, and a deficiency of this vitamin can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, aging, mental illness, neurological conditions, and many other problems. B12 boosts your metabolism and helps you burn more calories every day, but it also keeps you healthy. Red meat is one of the best natural forms of B12, making it an important food!

As a bonus, you also get a lot of other B Vitamins from red meat:

  • Thiamin
  • Folate
  • Riboflavin
  • Niacin
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Vitamin B6

By eating more red meat, you ensure you get more of these vital nutrients.

Iron -- Iron is one of the most important minerals in your body for a very simple reason: it's needed to produce red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs and nutrients from your intestines to every cell in your body. More red blood cells = better oxygen/nutrient transportation = better body function.

Red meat contains mostly a form of iron known as "heme iron," a type of dietary iron that is very easy to absorb and use. Plant-based sources of iron are nonheme iron, which is less bioavailable. But what's more, the heme iron in red meat can facilitate the absorption and use of non-heme iron. The iron in red meat will actually help you absorb MORE iron from other foods.

Vitamin D -- Most of our daily Vitamin D comes from sunlight, or from oily fish. But for those who live in places with less sunlight (far north or south) and don't eat a lot of fish, red meat is the next best option. It contains 25-hydroxycholecalciferol, a form of Vitamin D that can easily be absorbed by the human body. Among people with less exposure to sunlight, red meat can help to reduce the risk of Vitamin D deficiencies. Not even Vitamin D-enriched milk can offer the same benefits!

Fatty Acids -- Both red and white meat (poultry) contain fats, but did you know that the fatty acid profile of red meat is actually BETTER than that of white meat? This is because cows (ruminant animals) have a digestive system that maintains the quantities of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fat in the cow's body. It doesn't matter if they eat grain, grass, or other types of feed--the fatty acid profile of their meat will be consistent regardless.

The same cannot be said of white meat. The fatty acid profile of pork and poultry will change according to their diet. But with cows (beef), you get a consistent fatty acid profile that has a lot more unsaturated fatty acids than you might think. With grass-fed cows, you even get a healthy dose of Omega-3 fatty acids!

Other Minerals -- Red meat contains a lot of zinc, which plays a role in your metabolism as well as your immune system. Zinc is often a lot harder to get in your diet than you'd think unless you eat a lot of shellfish or organ meats. But with red meat, you get not only a good source of zinc but a source that is easily absorbed and used and which helps your body to absorb more zinc from other foods (plants).

Red meats are also rich in selenium (an antioxidant), chromium, copper, nickel, phosphorus, magnesium, and other minerals that play a role in the health of your bones, muscles, joints, organs, and tissues.

Complete Protein -- For an active person, protein is the single most important nutrient around. Carbs and fats provide energy, but it's the protein that ensures your body is able to build, repair, and restore muscle fiber.

Your body needs nine specific amino acids to build muscle. Red meat contains all nine "essential" amino acids (as does chicken, pork, turkey, fish, eggs, and many other foods). However, what sets red meat apart from the rest is the amino acid profile. All proteins have a certain balance of amino acids, but red meat contains a good balance of the three most important amino acids (the BCAAs) for muscle growth. Red meat contains more BCAAs than almost any other food, making it one of the most efficient for muscle-building. Why else do you think red meat is such a staple of a bodybuilder's diet?

Mental Health -- One of the additional benefits of red meat (beyond its nutrition) is its contribution to our mental health. An Australian study found that women who eat red meat are far less likely to develop clinical depression than women who don't. The women who ate less than the "recommended" amount of red meat had double the chances of developing an anxiety or depressive disorder.

All VERY good reasons to eat red meat, right?

Dangers of Red Meat

Now, to be truly fair, we have to present both sides of the coin. We've looked at why you should be eating red meat, so let's take a look at the reasons we should be eliminating red meat from our diet:

Increased Cancer Risk -- some studies have found that grilled red meat can increase your risk of developing cancer. No, it's not the meat's fault, but it's the fault of the cooking method.

You see, when you grill red meat, the high heat tends to burn the fat. This burned fat can become carcinogenic, increase your risk of cancer.

On the flip side, if you broil, fry, or smoke your meat, there is NO added cancer risk. It's only the high-heat methods (which can burn the steak) that contribute to a higher chance of developing cancer.

Cardiovascular Disease -- The myth that the saturated fat in red meat causes heart attacks and strokes has been debunked once and for all. Saturated fat is no longer demonized, but we've come to understand its place in our diets and health.

But, that doesn't mean red meat is off the hook. A 2013 study found that red meat can still lead to heart attacks. This is because red meat contains carnitine, which causes your body to produce TMAO, a compound that promotes the build-up of fat on your arterial walls. The more fat that builds up, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood. This can lead to an increase in blood pressure, weakening of the arterial walls, and eventually a clog. The result: heart attack or stroke.

Alzheimer's Disease -- Iron may play an important role in our overall health, but one UCLA study suggests that excessive iron accumulation can be behind Alzheimer's. Excessive iron intake (from too much red meat) can increase the risk of oxidative damage, which causes the degeneration of brain cells.

While the link between red meat and Alzheimer's may be thin, it's important you understand ALL the risks.

Colon Cancer -- A Harvard study found a link between red meat and colon cancer, though they're not quite sure what's the cause of that link. It could be:

  • HCAs produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures
  • Nitrates, a preservative, used in meat products, which are converted into carcinogenic nitrosamines
  • N-nitroso compounds (NOCs), cancer-causing chemicals that build up as a result of eating meat

The study found that there WAS a clear link, but more research is needed to determine exactly what is the problem.

Diabetes -- You may think Diabetes may only come from eating too many sweets, but according to a 2013 study, red meat plays a role in the problem as well.

Of more than 100,000 people studied, a significant number of people who ate a lot of red meat developed Type 2 Diabetes. Eating just 1 serving of meat per day raised the risk of developing diabetes by almost 50%. Cutting back on meat intake to less than half a serving per day lowered the chance of developing diabetes to under 15%!

Harsh Truth: It's About the Quality

Prevention has a list of 10 Reasons to Stop Eating Red Meat, but if you take a look at most of them, you'll find that they have nothing to do with the meat itself. Instead, you'll find that the real danger lies in what's in your meat:

  • The "glue" used to hold together meat scraps
  • The artificial chemicals and fillers used to make the "pink slime" that eventually becomes "meat products."
  • The processing that turns waste meat products into hot dogs and salami
  • The bacteria that may contaminate meat
  • The hormones injected into cows

If you eat "healthy" red meat (ergo, grass-fed beef), you are exposed to NONE of these dangers.

Red Meat: Essential or No?

This article isn't about "is red meat healthy or dangerous?" Instead, it's about "is red meat essential?"

Yes: Red meat is one of the best sources of protein, and it has a balanced nutritional profile that few other foods can offer. It delivers vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, and is one of the most satiating foods on the planet.

No: There are other sources of protein, and you can get minerals from other foods. If you are trying to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, you may want to find other "safer" foods than the highly controversial red meat.

In the end, it's up to you!

We've listed the benefits of red meat above, but we've also looked at what could make it dangerous. In small quantities (a few servings per week), red meat can offer a lot of health benefits. In excess, red meat may increase your risk of health problems.

If you're going to eat red meat, try to make it high-quality meat. Stick with the leaner cuts of beef for the most part, but if you're going to buy meat to grill, make sure you buy mostly grass-fed beef. It's the best way to get a proper balance of proteins and healthy fats.

Note: Don't take our word for it! The "meat vs. no meat" debate has raged for years, and will rage on for many more years. It's up to you to do further research and find out more about the meat you eat. Be a smart consumer and learn as much as you can about the safety/dangers of your food.

1 Response
  • John Bauer
    August 29, 2016

    Karen, nice post which covers the topic well. I have heard it said that meat should be treated more as a condiment than a staple in our diets, and I think that is key. The nutrition is good to have but moderate quantities is likely the best way to consume it.

    I am largely plant-based myself but do enjoy some dairy and a few ounces of red meat nearly every day. I have actually transitioned away from the white meats some time ago, largely due to the fatty acid profile you mention. However, I do still have the occasional chicken breast at restaurants.

    I plan to link to this in my blog post today – thanks for a great article.

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