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What’s The Verdict On Red Meat?
Many people have the impression that vegetarian diets are healthier. The consumption of red meat in particular has been vilified by some as being harmful to human health. But is this really the case? While no one can dispute that many processed meats are unhealthy, what do the facts really say about the effects of eating red meat? Let’s explore what science has to say, and see if there is any way that this staple food item for so many people can be enjoyed in a responsible manner.
What’s the deal with red meat?
Let’s face it— while many people choose to opt for a vegetarian lifestyle (and there can be some advantages to doing so), humans have been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, since the eras of our pre-homo sapien human ancestors. Our bodies are evolved to be omnivorous, which includes eating animal protein in the form of red meat.
Red meat is defined as meat that comes from a mammal. Beef, lamb, goat, mutton and veal would all be considered red meat. Pork is also technically a red meat, even though it does not appear to be red when cooked.
We need to get a few things out of the way first: Red meat is not all bad. It is obviously an excellent source of protein. One pound of beef contains around 80 grams of protein, and other meats like bison have similar nutritional profiles making red meat one of the most protein-dense food sources in the world. Red meat is also a great source of B vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc.
Red meat has been a staple food item in cultures across the world for thousands of years. Although the amount of red meat consumed per year has declined in some areas as vegetarian diets have become more popular, 145.8 pounds per year in 1970 versus 106.6 pounds per year today in the United States, according to Medical News Today. It is obviously still a ubiquitous item on the menu in most countries. In light of its popularity and its nutritional benefits, why does red meat get such a bad rap these days?
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Health Risks of Red Meat
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a controversial report classifying red meat as probably carcinogenic, meaning that the consumption of such meat increases the likelihood of developing cancer. This same report also labelled processed meats, defined as any meat which has been cured, smoked, salted or fermented, as carcinogenic to humans. This includes foods like bacon, beef jerky and other meats which have been processed in some way.
Why did the WHO make these claims? The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group reviewed over 800 studies for evidence linking the consumption of red meat to an increased risk of cancer. According to their research, eating more red meat led to a higher risk of colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
Why is this? According to some scientists and organizations like the National Cancer Association, it may have to do with the way the meat is cooked. Preparing red meat at high temperatures can release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as well as heterocyclic amines (HCAs), two types compounds which have been shown to increase the chances of developing cancer. The more charred or blackened red meat becomes, the greater the concentration of these compounds.
While the WHO did state that the relationship between these compounds and cancer risk is not completely understood, these findings are something to keep in mind.
But cancer is not the only problem red meat is linked to. Some health experts maintain that regular consumption of red meat increases the chances of heart and kidney disease as well.
In a study published in the American Society of Nephrology, the participants were polled to see if there was a link between how much red meat people ate and kidney problems. The researchers found that the participants in the highest 25 percent of red meat consumption had a 40 percent higher chance of kidney failure than those in the lowest 25 percent. As for heart disease, some believe there is a link due to the levels of cholesterol and saturated fat found in red meat, but the science is not definitive on this, and some studies show no correlation between cardiovascular disease and consumption of red meat.
What’s the key takeaway from all this? Everything in moderation. People have eaten red meat since prehistoric times, and as long as you eat lean meats as part of a balanced diet and try not to eat too many processed foods (which almost all medical experts agree are unhealthy), you should be fine. Just make sure it’s not overcooked.