Should we be taking red meat studies seriously?
Historically, studies on red meat didn’t differentiate between processed and unprocessed meat, grain-fed and grass-fed meat, nor between pork, beef, lamb or game – they were all lumped together in one big group.
Meat from a cow roaming freely on Scottish hillsides and chewing on grass and clover from ancient pastures would have been grouped together with meat from cattle in feed-lots pumped up with hormones, antibiotics and grains.
And meat from wild deer would have been classified as red meat too, as would bacon derived from pigs fed various industrial by-products and then plastered with nitrites.
Previously red meat consumption was thought to be linked to an increased risk of heart attacks because of the saturated fat content in red meat, but recently serious doubt has been cast on the ‘saturated fat is bad for you’ theory.
I’m not the only sceptic – a meta-analysis of 21 studies on saturated fat by Professor Krauss of the American Heart Association found no obvious link between saturated fat and heart attacks.
(Professor Krauss used to be a firm believer in the saturated fat is bad for you idea; in 2000 he chaired the AHA dietary guidelines for the American population and at that time recommended limiting saturated fat intake).
It’s nice to know that even those in high positions can do a complete U turn when there is incontrovertible new evidence.
If saturated fat isn’t the link between red meat and heart attacks, what exactly then is the culprit?
It could be the nitrites in processed meats; or the low omega-3 and antioxidant levels in grain fed meat; or the growth hormone that feed-lot cows are injected with; or any combination of these and other factors.
The way to find the culprits would be to conduct studies comparing processed, unprocessed, hormone injected, antibiotic fed, grain-fed and grass-fed meat.
Unfortunately, to date not many studies of these types have been conducted.
One such study that I did manage to find compared the effects of eating grass-fed and grain-fed beef for 6 weeks on levels of omega-3 fats in humans, and it showed that the higher levels of omega-3 fats in grass-fed beef did translate into higher levels in the blood of the consumers of that beef.
(Most people have too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 fats in their diets – Click here for more on this).
Another study looking at the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef found that levels of vitamin A, vitamin E and cancer-fighting antioxidants in the grass-fed beef were higher.
(The cancer-fighting antioxidants being glutathione and superoxide dismutase).
A study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden looked at the association of processed and non-processed meat consumption with survival, and found that a high total red meat consumption was associated with shorter survival, but consumption of non-processed red meat alone was not associated with shorter survival.
Regardless of the type of feed, red meat is an important source of the following nutrients:
- Essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins)
- Vitamins A, B6, B12, D and E
- Various minerals including iron, zinc and selenium
And the fats in meat aid the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K from other foods.
Similarities between red meat and olive oil
Surprisingly, 40% of beef fat is composed of MUFA – the very same fatty acid that supposedly gives olive oil some of its benefits.
I too was astonished when I first discovered that olive oil and beef fat both have high levels of MUFA.
Here’s a link to more information on the fatty acid content of cooking oils.
The Inuit Paradox
Why do the Inuit who have a diet high in meat and blubber, and low in fruit and vegetables, have a relatively low risk of heart attacks and cancer?
The diet of the Inuit traditionally used to be high in fat (>50%), but more importantly the fats that they consumed would have been from wild animals and fish which were high in MUFA, omega-3 fats and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants – the very same nutrients found in significant levels in grass-fed meat.
Overall their omega-6 to omega-3 intake was an ideal 1:1 – unlike Westerners who have an unhealthy ratio of roughly 15:1.
A question that many ask is ‘how did the Inuit escape the clutches of scurvy?’
It turns out that the raw organ meats, raw kelp, whale skin and blubber that the Inuit eat are all good sources of vitamin C.
And let’s not forget the things that the Inuit didn’t used to consume – sugar, alcohol and wheat, to name but a few.
To conclude: which instinctively sounds better for you and for the planet – meat from animals on Scottish hillsides pasturing on wild grass; or meat from animals cooped up in feed-lots, injected with antibiotics, and fed grains that have been grown on land that has been de-forested, ploughed and fertilised with nitrogen fertilisers?
So rather than focussing on the fat content of your meat, think more carefully about where the meat came from, and how it was produced.
- You are what your animals eat
- Grass-fed meat is better and healthier than grain-fed meat
- Feeding animals grain involves converting pastureland or woodland into arable land to grow grain
- Converting pastureland, woodlands or forests into arable land is bad for the environment
- Pastureland sequesters carbon and acts as a ‘carbon sink’
- Ploughing up pasturelands releases carbon into the atmosphere
- Methane emissions from animals contribute 10% to greenhouse gases
- The majority of methane emissions come from landfill sites
Useful relevant facts:
- One of the best sources of protein for both human health and the environment is mussels (which are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids)
- Farming mussels gives rise to a very low carbon footprint
- Mussels actively soak up carbon from the atmosphere to make their shells
- One mussel filters and cleans 3 gallons of sea water per hour