For decades, we’ve been told that red meat is bad for us, that it leads to a higher risk for cancer and heart disease. But more recently, several research papers found that red meat was not associated with poor health. Who should we believe? That’s what we will discuss in this video.
Red meat… not as bad for your heart as you may have thought
Some people are surprised when they learn that red meat is in the Yellow Food category (ok in moderation if you choose) in our Optimal Health Nutrition Program rather than the Red Food category (should be avoided).
Although it has been stated as fact for several decades, often emphatically, that red meat is a cause of cancer and heart disease, the truth is not as clear as you may have been led to believe.
Yes, several studies have shown an increase in cancer and heart disease in those who eat the most red meat.
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However, there are two essential points to make about these studies:
- As with most nutrition research, these are observational studies. What that means is that they have limitations and are NOT the most scientifically valid. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, just that they COULD be wrong.
- The difference in cancer, heart disease, and death rates between the people who ate the least amount of red meat and those who ate the most in these studies is small. For example, a large study of physicians and nurses by a Harvard research group found about a 20% increase in death in those who ate the most red meat. And while a 20% increase in mortality sounds very concerning, this is a RELATIVE difference rather than an ABSOLUTE difference. For example, in the Harvard study, two servings per day of processed red meat (about 14 hot dogs or 28 slices of bacon per week) increased the RELATIVE risk of death by 20%, but the ABSOLUTE increase was only 0.81% to 0.97% per year. Yes, about 0.16% increase in death rates per year for those who ate the most red meat, which was about two servings per day.
I don’t mean to imply that red meat is not important, but just to keep it in perspective.
When a prominent medical journal published new research and a guideline pushing back on the concept that red meat is bad for your health, there was a firestorm of criticism. The author’s conclusions were that people should not change their current red and processed meat consumption based on health concerns.
Of course, this was highly controversial. Several prominent organizations criticized the guideline, including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.
Here’s what I think.
After reading the important research, I believe that regularly eating red meat is LIKELY to have a small, negative effect on your health. This is not definitive, but I believe that substituting plant-based proteins (nuts, lentils, legumes, whole grains, vegetables) for red meat will likely be better for you on balance. However, if you enjoy red meat in your diet, there is not strong evidence that you should eliminate it, especially if it’s a few times a week.
If increasing your Healthspan is your goal, you probably shouldn’t eat red meat daily, but whether you choose to eat red meat on occasion probably has little (if any) effect on how long you will live. If you can avoid red meat and not miss it, then good for you, but if you like red meat on occasion, there is little evidence that health is a reason to avoid it. And I will purposefully not go into the moral aspects of eating red meat, as I believe that is a personal decision.
If you do decide that red meat has a place in YOUR healthy diet, our recommendations are to enjoy better quality meat (unprocessed, grass-fed, humanely raised) on a less frequent basis rather than poor quality meat more often.
I will end with this. Red meat is not the reason that we are seeing epidemics of obesity and diabetes and all the associated health problems. The bigger culprit is highly processed and refined foods. If you are eating for Optimal Health, the best place to start is to focus on real food.