Meat is one of the most controversial foods in nutrition today. Many people believe meat is unhealthy and that we should be trying to eat less of it. Plant-based proteins have surged in popularity and public health experts continue to encourage people to shy away from meat.
Others argue for the benefits of eating meat and are going so far as to recommend an all meat diet. What is the bottom line, is meat good or bad?
As with anything in nutrition, the reality is not so cut and dried.
There’s no doubt meat and other animal products are an excellent source of protein. Additionally, animal products provide important nutrients not available in plant proteins.
On the other hand, observational studies show a connection between a high intake of meat, particularly processed meat, and greater risk of diseases. However, observational studies only show a relationship and cannot prove that meat causes these diseases.
Additionally, it’s theorized that the association with disease, particularly cancer, may be due to how the meat is cooked, rather than the meat itself. When grilled, barbecued, or smoked at high temperatures, toxic compounds called poly- and hetero-cyclic amines (PCAs and HCAs) are produced, which may cause cancer when consumed.
Then there’s the fact that not all meat is created equal. Factory-farmed meat “comes from animals raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground-up parts of other animals,” writes Dr. Sean Lucan in a review of the issue.
Aside from being an appalling life for the animal, factory-raised meat has a number of nutritional drawbacks. Factory-farm cows are raised on a grain-rich diet, leading to higher levels of the omega-6 fat that is pro-inflammatory when consumed in large quantities. In comparison, grazing is a natural behavior and cows that are raised and finished on grass provide a better dietary fat profile of anti-inflammatory CLA and omega-3 fat. Grass-fed beef provides a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio between 1.4 and 2.75. Grass-fed beef also provides more stearic acid, which is a type of saturated fat that doesn’t raise blood cholesterol and is considered better than other forms of saturated fat.
Another benefit of organic and wild meats is that they contain glutathione—an amino acid composite that is enormously effective at protecting your DNA and cells from cancer. Organic beef and ham have the highest glutathione content of all foods, surpassed only by fresh vegetables like asparagus.
Organic dairy and eggs are also more nutritious than conventional, providing superior levels of all the omega-3 fats, and vitamin K, which is deficient in the modern diet.
Another concern with factory farm meat is that the animals are given growth hormones and antibiotics that are biologically active when ingested by humans.
So, the type of meat you eat matters, and it’s a good bet that the overall composition of your diet plays a pivotal role in dictating health outcomes.
For example, a recent large-scale study that tested the effect of meat intake on mortality in the Asian countries of Bangladesh, China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan found that greater red meat, poultry, and seafood intake led to a lower risk of mortality. In addition, red meat intake was inversely associated with risk of death from heart disease in men, and with cancer mortality in women.
This is noteworthy for two reasons. Though red meat intake has been rising in Asia over the past 20 years, it is still significantly lower than in the U.S. The U.S. consumes about four times more red meat than Japan, China, and Korea, which might indicate that a more moderate red meat intake than Americans are currently eating is preferable for disease prevention.
In addition, the typical Asian diet is vastly different than the typical Western diet, being much higher in fish, rice, green tea, and fermented soy.
Processed food and chemical additives are not as abundant and there is a greater intake of a wider variety of vegetables. Plus, the cultural approach to eating is radically different and may influence the health effects of diet.
How To Safely Include Meat In Your Diet
There is no need to eliminate meat from your diet, but it is worth the effort to protect yourself from the pitfalls of animal products. It’s a no brainer to invest in organic animal products whenever possible. Of course, few people can eat a diet that is exclusively organic, free-range, and grass-fed, so here are some tricks for eating smarter and healthier.
#1: Try to get your meat, eggs, and dairy from a local farmer even if they aren’t 100 percent organic. It’s difficult and expensive to get an organic certification. A farm may be raising animals and produce organically and just not be certified, so be open minded when sourcing food.
#2: Look for “grass-fed/grass-finished” beef because the label “grass-fed” could mean that the animal was generally raised on grass but fed primarily grain over the last months before slaughter to fatten them up. This leads to a high omega-6 content, which is not ideal.
#3: If your budget is getting in the way of buying organic, look for the best possible options when buying conventional: Animals should be raised on vegetarian feed and hormone-free.
#4: When cooking meat, use gentle cooking methods such as stewing or steaming. Avoid high temperature cooking because the harmful heterocyclic amines (HCA) compounds are produced at temperatures around 400°F.
#5: Marinate meat with red wine, lemon juice, or olive oil because it will reduce HCA production.
#6: Always include leafy greens or other antioxidant-rich vegetables when eating meat to improve digestion and GI function.
#7: Seek out local and organic farms for your meat, eggs, and dairy products. Below is a list of safer sources for animal products: Eat Wild lists more than 1,300 pasture-based farms, primarily in the U.S., but with a few additional listings for Canada and the rest of the world.
The Weston A. Price Foundation lists local chapters that can help you find pasture-raised animals and organic produce in the U.S. and internationally. U.S. Wellness Meats
Grassland Beef is based in Missouri and sells pastured organic animal products of all sorts including beef, poultry, dairy, bison, pork, and wild caught seafood. They ship to all U.S. states but cannot ship internationally.
Tendergrass Farms is based in Virginia and sells pastured, organic beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. They ship to all 50 states.
Lucan, Sean. That It’s Red? Or What it Was Fed/How it Was Bred? The Risk of Meat. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012. 96(2), 446.
Daley, C., Abbott, A., et al. A Review of Fatty Acid Profiles and Antioxidant Content in Grass-Fed and Grain-fed Beef. Nutrition Journal. 2010. 9(10).
Palupi, E., Jayanegara, A., et al. Comparison of Nutritional Quality Between Conventional and Organic Dairy Products: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.
Pan, A., et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2012. 172(7).
Rohmann, S., et al. Meat Consumption and Mortality—Results from the European Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. BMC Medicine. 2013. 11(63).
Micha, R., et al. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus. Circulation. 2010. 121(21), 2271-2283.