Is Red Meat Safe?

October 30, 2019

Recently, a study was published that recommended that it is not necessary to reduce your intake of unprocessed red meat. The media is running wild with it because it flies in the face of previous recommendations to cut back on red meat. The new study shows that previous concerns of increased risks of cardiac disease, stroke, and diabetes are unfounded because the risks are negligible. 

You can read the study (it’s a bit dry) but I want to call attention to some glaring points of consideration that were not part of the study. As a nutrition coach, I gotta tell you that it’s got me totally frustrated. I won’t be delving into the debate about whether or not we should even eat animal protein – because that is a completely separate (and highly contentious issue). I will be discussing the healthiest way to eat animal protein and why. 

If you choose to eat red meat, or any animal protein, there are some health factors that I think are extremely important to consider:

  • What did the animal eat?
  • And how was it raised?
  • How are you preparing the meat?
  • How is your purchase affecting your environment?

To quickly summarize my recommendations:

  1. Buy grass-fed/pastured meats and free-range eggs
  2. Limit flame-grilled meats
  3. Limit meats cured with nitrates
  4. Buy from local farms
  5. Educate yourself on the environmental impact of raising livestock

Buy grass-fed/pastured meats and free-range eggs

In my opinion, this is the most important health factor when purchasing meat or eggs. The healthiest animal protein is grass-fed (aka pastured or free-range). In addition, organic and antibiotic-free is important (and I will delineate on organic vs. grass-fed). 

Grass-fed animals eat their natural diet and as a result, their fatty tissues contain higher levels of Omega 3, Vitamin A and E, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. Grain-fed animals are higher in Omega 6 fatty acids which should be eaten in low amounts because they can promote cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. Grass-fed is also important when purchasing any dairy product. You may have noticed that these products are more expensive but in my opinion, they are well worth the cost. You are investing in your future health!

But what about organic? Organic is great! The animal wasn’t in contact with pesticides. However, what if the animal ate organic grain and is, therefore, higher in Omega 6 and lower in other valuable nutrients? To me, it’s rather silly to choose these products if organic grass-fed is available. 

Also, rarely discussed in public media is the fact that feeding cows corn can make them sick. Corn is used as animal feed because it is cheap, quickly processed by the animal, speeds growth, and increases profits. But who wants to eat a sick cow? Not me.

Limit flame grilled meats

Grilling (broiling) and barbecuing (charbroiling) meat, fish, or other foods with intense heat on the grill leads to formation of potential carcinogens. These substances include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) present in flames that can stick to the surface of meat. If you do choose to grill, try not to char your meat!

Limit meats cured with nitrates

Many cured meats use nitrites and nitrates to preserve the meat. These are known carcinogens. (To be fair, this was addressed in the study but frequently goes unmentioned in news articles.)

Buy from local farms

The food we eat had to be transported to the store. The further it traveled, the higher the environmental impact. Flip over the package and see where it came from and buy local when possible.

Educate yourself on the environmental impact of raising livestock

The study cited at the beginning of my post stated: “considerations of environmental impact or animal welfare did not bear on the recommendations.” However, the health of our planet does impact our health. We live in the most chemically toxic environment that humans have ever experienced. We can all do our part to reduce our carbon footprint by buying animal protein that has the least environmental impact. Steak lovers, I have some sad news. The reality is that raising cattle livestock has the greatest carbon footprint of all (within the food production sector) But don’t let this fool you – you can make a bigger impact by reducing your use of gasoline.

Food Production Sector:

Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions (U.S.):