Red Meat: Is it Harmful to Your Health?

Red Meat: Is it Harmful to Your Health?

Health experts and nutritionists have spent years debating red meat’s benefits and its health risks. As a result, the divided opinions and the contradicting studies have also led to confusion among red meat eaters on its effect on human health. For example, some researchers believe that red meat contains components like proteins, vitamin B12, iron etc., making it healthy. In contrast, several studies also show that consuming red meat can lead to the risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular issues and other health concerns. However, almost all studies on red meat consumption typically demonstrate that its overconsumption can lead to adverse health effects. In addition, several studies also showcase that regular consumption of red meat also invites health risks.

The article explains everything you should know about red meat and its impact on your health.

What is Red Meat?

The terms “red meat” and “white meat” are a continual source of confusion. It is primarily due to their broad and oversimplified use in scientific publications, dietary recommendations, nutrition policy, and medical advice to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer risk.

Usually, meat obtained from sources other than fish and chicken is considered red meat. The traditional forms of red meat are beef and mutton and although people in several civilisations do not consider it red meat, scientific literature counts pork as red meat. 

As per science, the term red meat is commonly defined as flesh from animals with a higher proportion of red muscle fibres, such as beef, goat, lamb, pork, veal, mutton, and horse. Furthermore, the USDA considers red meat as meat derived from mammals like pigs, sheep and other mammals. Therefore, it excludes chicken and other non-mammals. In addition, dietary organisations worldwide also highlight the importance of myoglobin in differentiating red meat from other meat forms. For example, USDA suggests that the meat variety with a high quantity of myoglobin is red meat.

Types of Red Meat and their Nutritional Values

Although there are several meat varieties that we can identify as red meat, some of the most common forms of red meat are: 

Beef

Meat obtained from cattle like cows and bulls is beef. Traditionally it includes meat from cattle raised in open farmlands and sometimes pastures. However, the modern-day method of raising cattle also involves raising them in small animal pens.

Nutritional Values of Beef (per 100g)
100g portion of Beef contains about 61.9g of water and 20g of fat.

Other common Nutritional Values include:

  • Energy: 254kCal
  • Protein: 17.2g
  • Carbohydrates: 0g
  • Sugar: 0g
  • Calcium: 18mg
  • Iron: 1.4mg
  • Phosphorus: 158mg

Mutton and Lamb

Meat from the young sheep (a year or less) is lamb, and the meat obtained from adult sheep (1-3 years) is mutton. The raising procedure for sheep is very similar to cattle. However, in most cases, people use sheep that can no longer produce profitable wool yields due to old age and other reasons.

Please note: Most people confuse mutton with goat’s meat. However, goat’s meat is known as Chevon (the french name for goat), or simply goat.

Nutritional Values of Lamb (per 100g):

  • Energy: 282kCal
  • Water: 59.5g
  • Fat: 23.4g
  • Protein: 16.6g
  • Carbohydrates: 0g
  • Sugar: 0g
  • Calcium: 16mg
  • Iron: 1.55mg
  • Phosphorus: 157mg

Pork

Meat from the domestic pigs is pork. Like domestic animals, the raising environment for pigs is also the same as cattle. However, pigs usually only produce meat as their primary profitable yield, unlike sheep.

Nutritional Values of Pork (per 100g):

  • Energy: 109kCal
  • Water: 76g
  • Fat: 2.17g
  • Protein: 21g
  • Carbohydrates: 0g
  • Sugar: 0g
  • Calcium: 5mg
  • Iron: 0.98mg

Venison

Venison is one of the unconventional forms of meat. Usually, it refers to the meat obtained from Deer, elk and other commonly hunted animals. Meat obtained from domesticated animals is usually not categorised under venison.


Nutritional Values of Venison (per 100g, ground venison)

  • Energy: 161kCal
  • Fat: 7.14g
  • Protein: 22.32g
  • Carbohydrates: 0g
  • Sugar: 0g
  • Calcium: 9mg
  • Iron: 2.46mg
  • Sodium: 76mg
  • Fibre: 0mg

Goat

Unlike other meat forms, goat meat is generally known as Goat. However, another popular name for it is Chevon. The raising procedure is similar to cattle. Goat meat is prevalent in countries like India, where the consumption of other meat sources is minimal due to cultural reasons.


Nutritional Values of Goat (per 100 g ), as per USDA:

  • Energy: 109kCal
  • Water: 75.8g
  • Fat: 2.31g
  • Protein: 20.6g
  • Carbohydrates: 0g
  • Calcium: 13mg
  • Iron: 2.83mg
  • Phosphorus: 180mg

Besides consuming it in the cooked (dry or gravy) form (especially in the Indian subcontinent), meat consumption has two prevalent methods. 

Grilled Meat

It is one of the most popular methods of consuming red meat worldwide. As the name suggests, it involves grilling the meat on the surface from above and below. Often people tend to consume grilled meat from barbecues. Although a favourite for many, studies showcase its association with increased cancer risks.

Processed Red Meat

Since cleaning and preparing red meat is a time-taking task, the commercialisation of foods introduced processed meat. It is any meat that manufacturers preserve by adding salt, smoke or other ways of preservation. Processed meat is harmful to your health. Some studies have found direct links between processed red meat consumption and increased colorectal cancer risk.

Red Meat’s Impact on Your Health

Although red meat is a famous cuisine, it impacts your health. The nutritional properties of various forms of red meat suggest that it can potentially offer some health benefits. However, several studies contradict the same and recommend that regular consumption of red meat leads to several health risks, including cancer and cardiovascular issues, etc. 

Here is everything you should know about red meat’s impact on your health.

Red Meat is Nutrient-Rich

Unprocessed red meat has a rich nutrient profile containing vitamins, minerals and protein. As a result, it can offer several benefits like preventing anaemia, strengthening bones, improving nerve cell health etc.

Rich in Vitamins

Red meat is a rich source of minerals and vitamins that our body needs to function properly. For example, it contains vitamins like B12 and Vitamin D. As per research, vitamin D helps regulate the amount of phosphate and calcium in the body. As a result, it helps keep your bones, teeth and muscles healthy. At the same time, research shows that vitamin B12 helps keep your body’s blood and nerve cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all of your cells. Vitamin B12 also helps prevent megaloblastic anaemia, a blood condition that leads to fatigue and weakness. Although red meat is a good source of both, you can find these vitamins in dairy products and lean meats like chicken or fish.

Rich in Protein

Red meat is a good source of protein. Since every cell in the human body requires protein for proper functioning, getting enough protein in your diet is essential. In addition, protein helps your body repair cells and make new ones. It is also vital for growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. However, these days, getting protein through foods is not a challenge as increasing awareness and support of apps like HealthifyMe offer various food options to fulfil your protein requirements. Furthermore, any form of meat (not specifically red meat) is rich in proteins.

Rich in Heme Iron

Heme iron is only present in meat, poultry, and seafood. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) list some types of red meat as good sources of heme iron. Nonheme iron occurs in plants and iron-fortified foods, such as cereals and plant milk. However, as per the NIH, heme iron is more bioavailable, meaning that the body can use it more easily. As a result, it is helpful for people who can be at risk of iron deficiency. For example:

  • Infants
  • Young children
  • People with heavy periods
  • Pregnant women

Red Meat Negatively Affects Heart Health

For several years, nutritionists and health experts have credited saturated fats in red meat as one of the most significant reasons negatively affecting your heart health. Since red meat is high in saturated fats, it increases LDL cholesterol levels in your body, and it is no surprise that high  LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart diseases.

Furthermore, results from two cohort studies shows that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. At the same time, the substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk.

The association between red meat consumption and an increased risk of cardiovascular issues goes even further. A recent study shows that people who regularly eat red meat have higher metabolite levels called Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). It is a toxin that the bacteria in your gut produce during digestion. Researchers have linked it to an increased risk of heart disease death. As per the study, people who ate red meat had triple the levels of TMAO as those who ate white meat or plant-based proteins. However, their TMAO levels returned to normal around four weeks after stopping eating red meat.

Red Meat and Cancer Risks

As per the WHO Globocan 2012 database, Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer in men and the second in women worldwide. More than half of cases occur in more developed, highly industrialised countries. As an essential part of the diet, red meat consumption is high in these countries. Prospective data provides evidence for the hypothesis that a high intake of animal fat increases the risk of colon cancer, and they support existing recommendations to substitute fish and chicken for meats high in fat.

A 2015 research paper states that red meat and processed meat are probably carcinogenic to humans. As a result, it leads to a higher risk of causing cancer. The research paper is consistent with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) classifications. The report suggests that, as per extensive studies, people who eat red meat are more likely to develop colorectal cancer. However, the risk was higher with processed meat consumption. Research also showcases a higher risk of stomach, pancreatic and prostate cancer in red and processed meat-eaters.

As per experts, the meat processing methods, such as curing and smoking, can create cancer-causing chemicals. Hence, researchers link processed meat with more significant health risks than unprocessed meat.

Another study tracked over 42,000 women for seven years and found that higher red meat consumption leads to a higher risk of invasive breast cancer. Conversely, women who ate poultry instead of red meat had a lower risk.

Researchers and experts also believe that most of the adverse effects of red meat consumption occur when you consume it in excess. For example, a study shows higher daily intake of unprocessed red and processed meat can lead to 25 common health conditions.

Red Meat: Signs of Overconsumption

1. Weight Gain

Fat constitutes a significant portion of a red meat slice. Approximately ⅕ of the entire weight of the slice is pure fat. Your body cannot utilise the excess fat, and it stores the fat in fat reserves. As a result, it causes weight gain.

2. Body Odour

Although it may be strange, some studies have shown that red meat consumption can negatively impact your body odour. As per research, some proteins and chemicals in red meat interfere with the natural chemicals and influence them significantly to affect the body odour negatively.

3. Inflammation

Inflammation refers to the body’s response to irritants and other external objects. It can many times lead to depression and insomnia. Often higher inflammation means the body doesn’t have enough antioxidants. Studies have shown significantly higher risks of Inflammation in individuals who consumed red meat in preference to other alternatives such as whole-grain meals.

How Much Red Meat is Too Much?

According to the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), people should limit their red meat intake to 3 servings per week, equivalent to about 350-500 grams per week. Furthermore, they recommend eating even less if you eat processed meat. As per AICR, meat is a valuable source of nutrients. However, people can obtain adequate proteins from legumes and grains.

The American Heart Association (AHA) does not specify the healthy quantity for meat consumption. However, as per AHA, people should cut back on meat and only eat it once in a while. In addition, people should stick to lean cuts and portions no larger than 150 grams at a time.

The best solution would be to eat red meat not more than once a week or once a fortnight if you really enjoy it. Else it would be great to make a swap to chicken and fish if it’s just non vegetarian food that you enjoy in general. 

Conclusion

Despite the high protein and iron content of red meat, several studies prove that it is a potential threat to your health. Since the recommended dosages are not scientifically defined, it also can be a challenge in identifying the adequate amount of consumption. Although red meat has potential health risks, it is not correct to link one food or food group to health problems is not valid. Health issues depend on other factors like genes, age, gender, environmental factors etc. 

However, most evidence highlights that regular or excess consumption of red meat, mainly processed meat, can lead to severe health issues. Therefore, health organisations, including WHO, recommend substituting red meat with healthy foods that offer similar nutrition. Furthermore, the AHA and AICR recommend eating more plant-based foods. 

Eating a portion of red meat once in a fortnight or a month won’t harm you and you can make your intake even better but combining the red meat with yummy antioxidant rich veggies and fibre rich whole grains. Making intelligent and informed choices can lead to a healthier and happier you.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. Is chicken red meat?

A: Chicken is not considered red meat because chickens are avians and not mammals. Since the USDA formally defines red meat as meat obtained from mammals, you cannot categorise chicken under red meat. Instead, the meat obtained from chicken falls under white meat and dark meat.

Q. What meats should you avoid?

A: You should primarily avoid processed meat as they are linked to several health problems. Processed meat is a group1 carcinogen, meaning it is proven to be a carcinogen and may cause cancer. Although red meat is better than processed meat, it has been classified as a group2A carcinogen, which means it is probable that it is carcinogenic. Hence, you should avoid or restrict the consumption of red meat as well. 

Q. Which meat is best for the human body?

A: A single food or food group cannot be best for the human body. Hence, it would not be correct to say that any meat is best for your body. However, except for processed and red meat, it is safe to consume other forms of meat in moderation. It is especially true in the case of white meat, as it does not lead to any major health issues and is an excellent source of protein.

Q. What is the unhealthiest meat?

A: Anything in excess can be harmful. The same is valid for meat. However, out of all meat varieties, any form of processed meat can cause the most severe health issues. Hence, the unhealthiest form of meat is processed meat. In addition, several studies also demonstrate the adverse effects of red meat consumption as it may increase the risk of cancer, cardiovascular issues and diabetes so it’s best not to eat it too often..  

Q. Is chicken better than red meat?

A: Chicken is safer to consume than red meat. That is primarily because chicken has less saturated fats than red meat. Furthermore, chicken contains higher omega-6 fatty acids than other animal meats and is high in protein and essential vitamins and minerals such as B6, B12, iron, zinc, and copper.

Q. What is the fattiest meat?

A: As per the USDA, prime rib (Prime rib is a classic roast beef preparation made from the beef rib primal cut) is the fattiest meat. Contrary to some beliefs, beef has the most fat to weight ratio (20g of fat per 100g of raw beef). At the same time, pork has about 13g of fat per 100g of raw pork.

Q. Is fish red meat?

A: No. Since fish is not a mammal, fish does not fall under the category of red meat. Instead, fish meat and poultry meat are usually classified under white meat.

Q. What happens if you eat too much red meat?

A: Short term overconsumption of red meat does not usually lead to severe side effects. However, long term overconsumption can cause health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and even certain cancers. 

Q. Why do bodybuilders eat meat?

A: Bodybuilders require a lot of nutrition to promote muscle growth. Since meat is rich in proteins and other nutrients, it makes up for a good diet for bodybuilders.

Q. Is red meat a carcinogen?

A: At present red meat is classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, which means there is not enough evidence to claim that red meat is a definitive carcinogen. However, this classification does mean that red meat is a probable carcinogenic and may lead to cancer.

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