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Is Red Meat Bad for You?

By Taylor Lee Updated on — Medically Reviewed and Certified by Dr. Robert Kiltz

Table of Contents

If you’re like most people you probably think red meat is bad for you. What if we told you that you were wrong? 

Though the topic of red meat and health has been one of the most controversial in the history of nutrition, there is no reliable evidence linking red meat to disease and poor health.  

In fact, when we take into consideration red meat nutrient content, the evolution of the human diet, and high-quality randomized control trials, we see that red meat is likely very good for you! And especially when combined with a low-carb diet. 

Before diving into the studies, let’s look at what “good for you” means in terms of dietary nutrition. 

What is a Healthy Diet? 

Having a healthy diet means you’re getting an adequate amount of macronutrients and micronutrients. 

Macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. 

Red meat is one of the richest sources of both macro and micronutrients. 

Red Meat is loaded with Macro and Micronutrients

Red meat is a robust source of critical nutrients, many of which are found only in meat.

An average 8-ounce (226-gram) serving of grass-fed ribeye steak has: 

 

Nutrient226g Rib EyeRecommended Daily Value (RDV)% RDV
Calories655 cal250018.6%
Protein54g60g (Standard Diet, not Keto)90%
Fat50g30g (Standard Diet, not Keto)166%
Saturated Fat23g20g (Standard Diet, not Keto)115%
Monounsaturated Fat25g
Carbohydrates0g1200g (Standard Diet, not Keto)0%
Niacin (B-3)13.5mg16mg30%
B-61.4mg2mg70%
Selinium56.25 mcg67mcg84%
Iron3.24mg20mg16%
Magnesium144mg420mg34%
Zinc9.45mg11mg86%
Potassium666mg4000mg17%
Phospherus400mg700mg57%

In addition to these essential macro and micronutrients, red meat is rich in several unique compounds found almost exclusively in animal-based foods. 

These compounds include carnitine, carnosine, creatine, taurine, retinol, and vitamins B12, D3, and K2. 

Carnosine 

One of the most promising anti-aging compounds. Carnosine is found almost exclusively in meat. This powerful peptide exists throughout the body in areas of high energy demands– the brain, heart, and muscles. Its there to protect these critical areas from the demands of energy production and management.   

When we’re young we have high levels of carnosine in energy-demanding tissues but as we age, our carnosine levels decline. 

Carnosine is effective at preventing glycation–the harmful bonding of glucose molecules to your cells and DNA. Antiglycation is synonymous with anti-aging and linked to reductions in the development of Alzheimers, renal disease, and atheroscloerosis. 

Carnosine is also a powerful antioxidant that destroys free radicals while reducing damage and shortening of telomeres–another powerful anti-aging property.

Carnitine 

Like carnosine, it’s found almost exclusively in red meat. Carnitine has been shown to play a significant role in improving male fertility. It also reduces anemia, especially when co-occurring with kidney dysfunction.   Exciting studies suggest that carnitine may play a major role in mitochondrial function and insulin sensitivity for people with type 2 diabetes.   While in heart attack patients, carnitine can prevent ischemia in cardiac muscle.

Creatine 

You’ve probably heard of creatine as a popular supplement with athletes and weightlifters, and it’s another compound only found in meat. Studies have shown that when vegetarians add creatine supplements to their diets they show improved cognitive function. Creatine has also been shown to improve athletic performance in both vegetarians and omnivores.  

Interestingly, Alzheimers patients show lower creatine levels.   When given to patients with heart failure, creatine has been shown to improve cardiovascular performance. For people with type 2 diabetes, supplementing with creatine combined with exercise improves glycemic control.

Taurine

Similar to carnosine, taurine is a powerful antioxidant that reduces glycation, inflammation, and oxidative stress. 

Interestingly, taurine has been shown to have an anti-depressive effect in animal studies on depressive rats–poor critters!. This effect suggests that taurine might be a factor in the sense of wellbeing many people describe when eating meat, especially after periods of abstaining or scarcity. 

Zinc 

Low levels of zinc are associated with erectile dysfunction and lower sperm count in males. The good news is that the zinc found in meat is 400% more bioavailable than zinc found in breakfast cereals.   

This exceptional bioavailability, when compared to zinc in plant foods, is due to plant phytates that interfere with absorption. This is why studies show that vegan and vegetarians have low zinc levels, and lower levels when compared to meat-eaters.  

Studies show that zinc deficiency affects motor development and cognitive development in children. Zinc also protects against coronary artery disease, is essential in insulin formation, and has been shown to increase glycemic control for diabetics.,

Vitamin B12 

AKA cobalamin is exclusive to animal products. Recent studies have found that up to 86 percent of vegan children, 90 percent of vegan elderly, and 62 percent of pregnant vegan women are B12 deficient.

Studies suggest that B12 deficiency can result in dementia and even result in Alzheimers disease.

In 2013 a high-quality randomized control trial found that supplementation of Vitamin B12 significantly improved depressive symptoms.

Heme Iron

Heme iron is only found in red meat and has a major role in many of the physiological functions critical for wellbeing. Iron is essential to the formation of red blood cells–lack of iron can lead to anemia. Iron plays a key role in immune function, is essential to cognition, and participates in energy metabolism.

A wide-ranging 2016 review of research into iron found significant deficiencies among vegans and vegetarians with women being particularly susceptible to low iron anemia.

What About the Studies Saying Red Meat is Bad for you?

Over the years a number of observational studies have erroneously linked a diet high in red meat to cancer and disease, 

However, new studies involving an international collaboration of researchers give us a series of analyses concluding that any links between red meat and disease are not backed by good scientific evidence.

Responding to the idea that eating less red meat reduces disease, Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, and  leader of the group research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, says, “The certainty of evidence for these risk reductions was low to very low.” In a 2011 analysis of 25 studies, researchers found insufficient evidence to support an association between red meat and colon cancer, the most common form of cancer associated with eating red meat

How Observational Studies Go Wrong

Studies linking red meat and disease were faulty for 4 main reasons: 

  1. They lump together red meats and processed meats. 
  2. They are observational studies that are notoriously inaccurate, and can make only correlations, but not identify causation. 
  3. The different ways that meat was cooked were not taken into account. 
  4. They rely on food frequency questionnaires that expect people to remember what they ate in the past.

Observational studies can only show that two variables are associated. They cannot propose causality. 

In observational studies, variables A and B might occur in the same person, but variables C-Z likely have a much greater effect on variable B than A does.  

To illustrate the problem: Observational studies are apt to say it’s the red meat in a burger that is harmful. But these studies ignore the processed wheat and preservatives in the bun, the artificial flavors and sugar in the soda, and the carb load of the french fries.  

To compound the inaccuracies in these studies are the decades of scare tactics used by the mainstream medical establishment to get people to cut down on eating meat. Health-conscious people are more likely to follow mainstream guidelines and abstain from red meat than non-health-conscious people. 

Yet, these same health-conscious people are more active, and more likely to abstain from drugs, alcohol, soda, and processed foods. It’s likely that they would actually be healthier if they included high-quality red meat as part of their healthy lifestyles!

This is why it’s always a problem to make dietary decisions based on observational studies alone. 

A 2019 analysis of 3,657 studies on cancer, compared the correlation between observational studies and higher quality randomized control trials. Researchers found that only 40% of the observational studies were in agreement. That’s less probable than the flip of a coin.  

It is alarming to think that decades of dietary guidelines from leading health agencies are based on findings that have less probability of being true than if they were left to blind chance. 

What Do Randomized Control Trials Say?

Randomized control studies–the gold standard of medical science testing–tell a very different story. 

They do a better job of isolating variables (like eating red meat) and comparing them against other variables in order to determine the true, head-to-head effects. 

Unsurprising to those of us interested in low-carb living, studies have shown that eating meat while reducing carbs leads to healthy outcomes. 

One trial called the “A to Z weight loss study” compared the red meat-heavy Atkins diet to a low-fat vegetarian  “Zone” diet without red meat.

After a year in, the group on the Atkins diet lost more weight and had greater improvements in many areas corresponding to disease risk factors.

The above is one of many studies comparing low-carb diets which are generally high in red meat, to low-fat (low red meat or vegetarian) diets. Each of these studies finds that low-carb diets result in dramatically better health outcomes.

Of note is the fact that these studies mostly focus on lean red meat, and do not look at fatty red meat or organ meats. 

We believe that the health outcomes would be even more beneficial if high fat and organ meats were included in these studies. 

What is Red Meat?

Red meat is the meat of mammals. It has a red appearance because it is rich in iron protein myoglobin.

Examples include:

  • beef (cattle)
  • pork (pigs and hogs)
  • lamb
  • veal (calves)
  • goat
  • Bison
  • Elk
  • Venison (deer)

Most people in modern societies typically consume meat as steak, chops, ribs, roasts, and in ground form.

In modern society, most meat comes from domesticated animals raised on large industrial farms.

What are Red Organ Meats?

Throughout most of human history, people enjoyed organ meats, known as offal. These meats include heart, liver, tongue, pancreas, brain, tripe, thymus, kidney, gallbladder, and other internal tissues. 

Organ meats contain highly bioavailable vitamins, minerals, fats, and amino acids. In many cultures organ meats were prized above the muscle meats.  

Many non-Western and traditional societies still make organ meats central to their diets.  We see this in the fact that organ meats are more valuable as an export from the U.S. than as a commodity sold here. 

Some organ meats that you may be familiar with include sweetbreads made from thymus glands and pancreas, Menudo soup with tripe, and the delicacy foie gras made from duck and goose liver. 

Humans Evolved to Eat Red Meat

Throughout our evolution humans have developed the ability to eat and easily digest red meat. 

In fact many scientists believe that scavenging and hunting meat is responsible for the rapid evolution of the human brain. As Doctor Kiltz likes to say, “We came out of the trees not to eat the grass, but to eat the grass eaters.” 

Today when we look at the 229 remaining hunter gatherer tribes, we see that a low carbohydrate and high meat diet is most common. 

A 2011 study by Ströhle and Hahn, found that 9 out of 10 of the diets of hunter-gatherer groups had less than a third of calories coming from carbohydrates. [9] 

But the meat that we eat today is very different from the meat that hunter gatherers enjoy, and that all humans used to eat. 

It is more accurate to say that we’re evolved to eat animals, including the organs and the fat–not just the lean muscle tissue that modern people think of when we hear the word, meat. 

Not all Red Meat is Created Equal

Meat from domesticated, industrial raised cattle and pigs is different than grass-fed, free-range animals. 

Conventional, factory-farmed animals are fed grain, given growth hormones, and pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from infection in filthy, overcrowded environments. 

Keep in mind that all of the studies on meat consumption referenced above did not account for the origins and quality of meat. 

Studies show that organic beef is significantly higher in “healthy” omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than conventional cattle. These healthy fats are credited with lowering heart disease and inflammation and fending-off cognitive decline.

Additionally, grass-fed meat has been shown to offer more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), higher levels of Vitamins A and E, and more antioxidants.

What are Processed Meats? 

Processed meat is enhanced and preserved through salting, curing, smoking, and drying and the addition of natural and artificial compounds. 

In many of the observational studies linking meat consumption with disease, there is no distinction between the types of meat that is consumed. Processed meats are thrown in there alongside perfectly healthy ribeyes, muddying the pool of variables. 

We recommend against all processed foods including processed meats. 

Processed meats that may be limited or avoided include: 

  • hot dogs
  • sausage 
  • bacon
  • lunch meats–bologna, salami, and pastrami
  • Jerky

High heat cooking and disease

In nearly every study correlating meat consumption and cancer, the meat was well-done. The link was not made between meat itself and cancer. 

These studies suggest that there may be a causal link between disease and high-heat cooking.

Meat cooked at a high temperature can form harmful compounds including amines (HAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and advanced glycation end-products (AGEs).

Healthy Cooking Methods 

Though many of you love grilled meat, it can produce harmful chemicals. 

Use the following cooking tips to protect your health while getting the most nutritional benefits out of red meat

  • Avoid grilling and frying
  • If you insist on high heat, flip meat frequently to prevent charring/burning
  • Stew or steam your meat
  • Roast or bake your meat (at low temperatures and for least amount of time)
  • When roasting spoon the juice “au jus” over meat before eating to replace B vitamins
  • Do not eat smoked food
  • Do not eat charred food
  • Cut away burnt pieces
  • Marinate your meat in garlic, red wine, lemon juice or olive oil to significantly reduce amines (HAs)

You can apply these guidelines to any food, not just meat. 

Is Red Meat Bad For You? The Verdict

Red meat is one of the most nutrient packed foods available. 

It’s loaded with healthy fats and proteins and offers essential vitamins and minerals that either don’t exist in other foods, or are impossible to get in significant amounts. 

The macro and micronutrients found in abundance in meat are crucial to the healthy functioning of your immune system, heart, energy production, and brain. 

The cultural bias towards viewing red meat as bad for us is due in large part to sensational headlines and scare tactics. 

Nutrition, especially when it comes to meat vs. zero or limited meat diets all too often takes on the emotional character of teams pitted against each other. 

Like most people, doctors and nutritionists fall into the trap of wanting their teams to win. They are willing to misrepresent, overemphasize, and inflate findings that support their positions. 

When we look at studies linking red meat to disease we find them to be low quality observational studies.  

  • Observational studies don’t distinguish red meat from processed meats, nor do they adequately control for other lifestyle choices that have far greater effects on health like exercise, smoking, and drinking. 
  • Observational studies are best understood helping us create theories, that could actually be tested with randomized controlled trials. 

In the few randomized control trials that pit low-carb meat diets against non-meat diets, we see that diets high in red meat result in dramatically better health. 

The Bottom Line

If you eat unprocessed grass-fed red meat cooked to avoid burning and charring, red meat is likely very healthy. 

It’s highly nutritious and loaded with healthy proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, along with various nutrients known to positively affect the function of both your body and brain.

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©2020 Doctor ROBERT KILTZ. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED