There are so many conflicting reports about if meat is good or bad for you. Some say it can be part of a healthy diet. Others declare it is the root cause of disease – including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. I have friends who completely avoid it and other friends who embrace meat as an everyday staple.
Whether meat is good or bad depends on with whom you are talking. Paleo enthusiasts say meat is essential to longevity. Vegans will tell you to avoid it at all costs. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated processed meat and bacon are carcinogenic and red meat is most likely, as well.
There are very real concerns involving meat, including the ethical treatment of animals and their impact on the environment, as well as medical and health issues. For some, there are very real ethical concerns about eating meat. For example, if you are a Buddhist and believe that any creature could be your mother from your past life or in your next life, then we can fully support being a vegetarian.
It’s not hard to see why the average person, or even doctor or nutritionist is confused. However, at the end of the day, the whole carnivore-vegan debate misses the real point – the root of chronic disease and obesity is actually sugar and refined carbs.
Studies that take a pro- or anti-meat stance often miss the bigger picture. They overlook the fact that most meat eaters who participate in the studies that show harm from eating meat are also eating a lot of sugar and refined carbs alongside a highly processed, inflammatory diet. They certainly aren’t eating small to moderate amounts of grass-fed or organic meat along with a pile of colourful fruits and veggies.
Admittedly, it would be almost impossible to perform an accurate study about meat. You would have to randomize people into a whole foods, low-glycemic, plant-rich diet with grass-fed or organic animal protein and compare them to those on a high-quality vegan diet. That study has never been done.
Many of the studies demonizing meat use subjects who are smokers, drink too much, eat way too much sugar and processed foods, eat very little fruits and veggies, and do not exercise. It’s no wonder that these meat eaters with bad habits and horrible diets are sicker and fatter…
What if Meat Eaters Only Ate Health Food and Grass-Fed Meat?
Some groups rally against the saturated fat and cholesterol found in meat, or say that meat is inflammatory, or that it contributes to cancer or type 2 diabetes.
The story is not as simple as meat is bad, veggies are good, however. The real question to ask is: do grass-fed meat eaters, who also eat lots of healthy food, don’t smoke, exercise, and take vitamins have heart disease?
Thankfully, some researchers have asked this question. In one cohort study, scientists studied 11,000 people, 57% of whom were omnivores (meat eaters) and the other 43% were vegetarians. Both groups were health conscious.
Interestingly enough, researchers found the overall death rates were cut in half for both health-conscious meat eaters and for vegetarians, as compared to the average person eating a western-style, processed food diet. The study concluded that for the vegetarians, there was no benefit found; and for the meat eaters, there was no increased risk for heart disease, cancer or death.
Does the Type of Meat You Eat Matter?
Another problem with most meat eater vs. non meat eater studies is that the type of meat consumed is industrially raised, factory farmed meat. This industrial grain-fed meat is often full of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, with more inflammatory omega–6 fats from corn and fewer anti-inflammatory omega–3 fats. These population studies don’t include people who eat only grass-fed meat without hormones, pesticides or antibiotics.
What About Saturated Fat?
Another concern that is raised is that saturated fat in meat causes heart disease. Yet interestingly, the types of saturated fats that cause heart disease – stearic and palmitic acid – don’t come from meat. Your liver produces these two fatty acids when you eat sugar and carbs. In other words, your liver produces saturated fat from sugar and carbs and that causes heart disease.
In one interventional trial, researchers showed even on a low-carb diet that is higher in saturated fats, blood levels of saturated fats remained lower because of the carb effect.
Simply put: In the absence of sugar and refined carbs and adequate amounts of omega–3 fats in your diet, saturated fat is really not a problem. Again, quality matters: The saturated fat in a fast food cheeseburger is completely different than what you get in coconut butter or a grass-fed steak.
These same limitations apply for studies that show meat causes diabetes and cancer: Most focused on generally unhealthy people eating a highly processed diet.
4 Rules If You Eat Meat
I hope you can see how eating meat can become healthy or unhealthy when you consider the many factors. If you opt to eat meat, follow these 5 rules to help you make the best choices.
- Choose grass-fed, pasture-raised organic meats. They’re more expensive but ideally you will eat less of the meat and more plant-based foods. Think of meat as a condiment, not a main dish. 50–75% of your plate should be vegetables!
- Avoid all processed meats. Stay away from processed meats such as deli meats. These are the meats that the World Health Organization points to that have been proven to cause disease, illness and cancer.
- Prepare your meat the right way. The way we prepare meats is the key. High-temperature cooking like grilling, frying, smoking or charring causes toxic by-products. This also happens when you cook fish or chicken at high temperatures. All of this leads to the production of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which studies have shown, cause cancer in animals. Change your cooking methods to reduce your exposure of these toxic compounds. The same rule applies to grains and veggies. Cooking these foods at a too-high temperature can cause the same problems. Focus on lower-temperature, slow cooking for meat and veggies – such as baking, roasting, poaching, and stewing.
- Pile on the vegetables. Fill your plate with phytonutrient-rich, colourful, non-starchy veggies and use meat as a “condi-meat.”
At the end of the day, the message on meat is pretty simple. About half the studies show it’s a problem; half of them don’t. For those studies that show meat eaters, as a whole, aren’t a healthy bunch, the reason is most likely not the meat, but rather the smoking, sugar-filled, and sedentary lifestyle that creates heart disease and other problems.
A diet filled with lots of high-fiber fruits and veggies that rejects sugar and refined carbs, welcomes grass-fed meat as a health food, lowering inflammation and improving all of the cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.
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