Does red meat have a place in a healthy diet?
Decades of scientific research indicated that the healthiest way to eat is to include all whole foods by which they mean unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, fish, and meat. This so-called Mediterranean diet is thought to be the healthiest and most balanced nutritional approach with the ability to improve cardiovascular and cognitive health.
How much red meat should you eat?
Considering that most fish these days contain plastics and heavy metals, I was curious to investigate if we could eat more red meat than recommended in the traditional Mediterranean diet and still get the same health benefits. I reasoned that organic grass-fed beef is free of pesticides and antibiotics; it’s low in Omega 6 and contains some Omega 3, although not as much as fish. I was pleased to have found two recent studies (from 2021 and 2022) exploring this topic.
So, can you eat red meat every day? Absolutely! I doubt anyone would get obese and sick from eating fresh vegetables and small lean grass-fed steak or a Chief Beef Bar every day. On the other hand, eating a 500g factory-farmed steak every day, chargrilling it until it’s black, adding a sugary chemical BBQ sauce, washing it down with a beer or sweet soda and having a bunch of fried white potato instead of green vegetables is asking for trouble.
The benefits of red meat consumption
A review of current research on meat intake and human health emphasised that although red meat is being blamed for causing chronic disease, science indicates that excessive energy intake (eating more than we need), unhealthy dietary habits, and a sedentary lifestyle play the leading role in the current chronic disease and obesity epidemic. For example, Inuits and Chukotka communities eat mainly meat due to food restrictions, yet they do not suffer chronic illnesses. The review points out that meat and meat products have played an essential role in human evolution by providing high-quality protein and essential micronutrients such as zinc, B12 and iron. For example, just 100g of liver contains 50% of all vitamins and minerals we need per day.
The 2022 review of 136 research studies on red meat revealed a whole array of benefits of red meat consumption:
- Consumption of fresh lean beef has been found to increase cognitive function in children and young adults, such as learning tasks, memory, problem-solving and even motor control. The effects on learning and memory from red meat consumption were more significant when compared to exercise alone.
- The brain needs a stable supply of amino acids for attention, cognition, and energy.
- Red meat consumption has been found to decrease the risk of dementia significantly.
- Vegetarians are twice as likely to develop mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression than meat-eaters.
- Life expectancy in meat-eating countries like Norway, Sweden and Switzerland is longer than in other countries.
- In human studies, increased lean red meat consumption did not enhance oxidative stress and inflammation markers.
- Iron from red meat is more bioavailable than from plants.
- Meat is high in zinc with a better absorption efficiency when compared to plant sources. We need zinc for many vital functions in our body, including fertility and reproduction, human growth and development, immune system, skin, and memory.
- Long term meat intake improved gut health and reduced inflammation compared to plant protein sources. However, consuming high-fat meat, over-processed meat, and excessive meat consumption all had adverse effects.
Is red meat good for building muscle mass?
Another systematic review from 2021 compared animal and plant protein in terms of increasing lean muscle mass. They found that animal protein tends to have a more favourable effect on lean muscle mass than plant protein, and the benefit appears more pronounced in younger adults. This could be attributed to animal protein quality. Protein quality depends on the composition of amino acids and their ability to be digested, absorbed, and utilised to meet the body’s needs. Animal protein is deemed as “high quality” because it provides all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities and tends to be well digested. Another interesting finding is that ingestion of animal protein induces higher energy expenditure than plant protein, possibly due to its greater anabolic effect.
If red meat is so beneficial to human health, why is it linked to chronic disease and obesity?
There are a few issues when it comes to meat consumption. It depends on what meat you eat, how much of it and what you have with it.
Consuming meat the wrong way - how to fix it
- Meat consumption has been increasing while intake of fruits and vegetables has decreased. To be healthy, we need to eat adequate amounts of vegetables and fermented foods alongside meat.
- Meat overconsumption has been normalised. If you sit at a desk every day, you don’t need 500g steak every night at dinner. Meat needs to be eaten in moderation to be healthy. The ‘moderation’ is very individual, depending on your size, energy expenditure, lifestyle, etc.
- Consumption of factory-farmed, grain-fed meat treated with antibiotics and full of pesticides (from the grains) may be harmful to human health. Eating grass-fed organic steak is the way to go and it's better for the planet too.
- Meat preparation changes everything. Over-processing and cooking at high temperatures make meat carcinogenic. One of the benefits of our beef bars is we dry them which avoids cooking the meat and retains heat sensitive vitamins such as B12.
- Condiments laden with sugar and artificial additives and ultra-processed vegetable oils are toxic.
- Drinking alcohol with meat is what's likely to give you liver disease and cardiovascular issues.
Red meat consumption research review
Animal vs plant protein