Food and Health

Is Meat Really Bad for You?

I have seen environmental advocates on the internet, in popular documentaries, and even on TV shows encouraging everyone and their brother to become a vegan because they claim eating animal products is the root cause of all our chronic health issues.  Quite frankly, it angers me.  While all nutritionists will agree that the healthiest diets are those where the majority of calories come from plants, there is no scientific evidence that has conclusively shown that red meat, or any meat for that matter, is an absolute cause of any disease.

I don’t understand why these environmentalists insist on scaring people into becoming vegans in order to further their cause, when they could focus on many real environmental issues with the way animals in consolidated animal feeding operations (CAFO) are being raised that should be brought to the public’s attention.

There are also those who become vegan for moral and ethical reasons.  Many feel that raising animals for food is not humane.  I don’t have a problem with this.  In fact, I don’t have a problem with anyone who wants to become vegan for any reason.  However, I personally am not a vegan.  In any case, let’s talk about meat.

Animal Feed Is Extremely Important

What you feed an animal that is being raised for food is extremely important.  I mention this frequently because it’s important to understand how detrimental the practice of feeding grains to animals is to the nutritional value of the food produced.  The majority of this feed is made up of genetically modified (GMO) corn, but other grains may be mixed in such as GMO soy.  Here’s the thing with using all this grain for feed, particularly when you are raising cows.  It is not the natural diet of the animal and it makes the animal sick.  On top of that, the omega-6 content of the meat we are eating skyrockets compared to what it should be since corn contains a heavy percentage of omega-6 fat and negligible amounts of omega-3 fat.

Distorting this ratio is extremely detrimental to the nutritional value of the meat because to promote an anti-inflammatory environment in the body, we need the ratio of omega-6 fat to omega-3 fat in our diet  to stay below 4 to 1.  The standard American diet (SAD) overall creates an average omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio of about 15 to 1, although it can be higher or lower depending on the individual.  This is, however, the average.  It is considered one of the underlying factors promoting chronic disease in Americans today since we now know inflammation is a major factor in all chronic disease.

Misleading Labels

If you are eating meat from the supermarket then you are likely eating meat from animals fed grain.  For beef, you can look for the words “grass-fed” on the label.*  The USDA does have some regulations in place for labeling that uses the words “grass-fed.”  This means it cannot be put on a label of any food product in the United States unless the animal has met the specific definition of grass-fed.  This specific definition assures that the consumer is not mislead and the animal has been raised on pasture and grass feed for its entire life.

Understand that the nutritional value of “grain-finished” beef is just as bad as all animals raised eating grain in a CAFO (for about the last 10 months of life).  It does not matter if the grain is genetically modified or not.  It is not the genetic material altering the fatty acid content of the meat.  It is the actual grain in organic or GMO form that raises omega-6 fat content.  Finishing animals on grain even for just a few days or one week will lower the meat’s nutritional value substantially.  It completely destroys the omega fat ratio.

Chicken unfortunately is a bit more complicated.  The phrases “free-range” and “cage-free” have little to no meaning on a label.  The term “free-range” is regulated, but it only means the animal had access to the outdoors.  This means you could raise hundreds of chickens in confined housing and open a door.  If the animals have no access to food outside, they will not leave the confined housing.  The term essentially means nothing close to what an average consumer would believe it means.

As an attempt to use a better term, organic egg farmers started using “cage-free.”  This term is not defined by the FDA or USDA at this time and also essentially means nothing.  The best way to determine if your chicken or eggs come from animals raised on pasture is to call the distributor of the food.  Most reputable food producers provide a phone number on their packaging.  They will be honest about their farming practices if you call.  Beware however of explanations that make unsustainable farming practices sound better than farms raising birds on pasture.  The best option is to buy from a local farm that you can physically visit yourself.

Not All Studies Are Equal

People supporting the idea that all meat is bad for you will bombard you with the title of various studies that show meat raises the risk for chronic disease.  What nobody is telling you is that scientific studies are not as straight forward in producing concrete evidence as these people would like you to believe.  This doesn’t mean nutritional studies are not accurate.  This means that unless you analyze the entire study yourself, you cannot be sure the supposed results being quoted by anyone are truly sound and carry clinical significance.  It’s impossible for me to cover how to analyze a scientific study for sound methodology and design in this article.  But let’s take a look at a study titled, “Meat Intake and Mortality:  A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People.”1

This study concludes that higher red meat consumption moderately increases mortality rate.  If I wanted to make a video to convince you that you should never eat red meat, then I could easily cherry-pick single sentences from this study to support my argument.  Everything I tell you about this study would make you never want to eat red meat again.  This is very easy to do.  It’s what people in videos, magazines, news articles, and documentaries do all the time.  Source of info:  A study showed blah, blah, blah.  Audience:  Wow!  It was in a study.  It must be true.

This same study defines red meat that was eaten by participants of the study as follows:  “bacon, beef, cold cuts, ham, hamburger, hotdogs, liver, pork, sausage, steak, and meats in foods such as pizza, chili, lasagna, and stew.”1  And THAT is what the people who use a study like this to persuade you away from eating something like grass-fed beef will NOT tell you.  Pizza meat?  Is that even real food?  Cold cuts?  I know that is definitely not real food, let alone a meat.

You cannot possibly compare the meat-eating habits of people in practically all of these studies to someone who eats grass-fed beef and truly pastured chicken.  The results mean absolutely nothing to someone like myself who consumes moderate amounts of clean meat in a whole-foods diet that also includes substantial amounts of plant foods.  Yet, that is exactly what people are doing, and it may very well be because they are sponsored by companies interested in the sale of high sugar foods.  It’s wrong.  It’s misleading.  It’s confusing.  And it’s causing more harm than good in an entire population who already doesn’t know what to eat.  This confusion leads many people simply give up.  Why?  Because too often it’s easier to not care and simply say, “Everything is bad for you so it doesn’t matter.”  It does matter.  And everything is not bad for you.

Does This Mean Meat Is Good for You?

Not necessarily.  Like all foods, it is the quality of that food that largely determines the nutrition value.  The quality of pastured chicken is far superior to deli meat chicken.  The quality of grass-fed ground beef is far superior to that of processed bacon loaded with nitrites and nitrates. Both pastured chicken and grass-fed beef are far superior to any grain-fed animal products.  You cannot compare oranges to apples when it comes to using a scientific study to support an argument.  If you want to convince people that even grass-fed beef is bad for their health, then you need to find a study that specifically used people who only ate grass-fed beef.  Otherwise, it’s irrelevant.

There are also certain medical conditions that do benefit from lower saturated fat intake regardless of the source.  This is because there are genetic dispositions that make certain people who eat diets high in saturated fat more susceptible to CVD.  It’s similar to salt.  There is a gene known as “the salt gene.”  Those who have it possess a higher sensitivity to salt intake and are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure with high salt intake compared with those who do not have this genetic makeup.  In some cases then, limiting red meat intake is important.

While I am not a vegan myself, I would never discourage anyone who desires this type of diet.  Done correctly it has many health benefits.  However, if you are afraid to eat meat because you think it will kill you, then start learning where you can buy sources of clean meats and use them in moderation.  To conclude that any meat consumption whatsoever is bad for everyone’s health is not what science has shown us.

  1. Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, Schatzkin A. Meat intake and mortality:  A prospective study of over half a million people.  Archives of Internal Medicine.  2009; 169(6): 562-571.

* Although the term “grass-fed” cannot be put on a label without meeting specific conditions, these words may be used for marketing purposes.  Be sure it’s on the label!

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About Laura Cadoret, MS

Helping people see the big picture in food industry and nutrition
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