Meat and health: explaining the confusion

becoming vegan - comic

Recently, many people started to become vegetarians. Some find themselves very happy with it, some others go back to eating meat… The debate about meat consumption and its impact on health has brought a lot of confusion.

As for me, I have reduced my own consumption a lot, but without experiencing any drastic change in my health or welfare. Let’s see what do the studies say, and what’s behind it. But first of all, let’s make things clear: what kind of meat are we talking about? Beef, pork (red meat)? Chicken (white meat)?

Red meat vs white meat

Red meat and white meat contain about the same nutrients: proteins, iron, zinc, niacin, and vitamin B. Organs and bones also contain many other important nutrients for good health. The main difference is that red meat usually contains more saturated fatty acids and cholesterol. And they happen to be controversial.

beef and chicken - comic

Although the debate is more often focused on red meat, what applies to one usually applies to the other.

What the studies say – hello confusion!

The link between meat and cancer has been the subject of more than a hundred epidemiological studies, in various countries, with different diets!

I will sum it up (without quoting them – it’s too much work): half of the studies say that it’s good, the other half says it’s not

beef good or bad for health - comic

But this can be explained! In fact, many of those studies don’t take into account the factor that makes all the difference: the quality of the meat.  But when we say “quality” of meat, what are we talking about exactly?

The quality of meat – the key factor

The processed meat

The first quality factor of meat is whether the meat has been processed or not, which plays a decisive role for health. Taking that into account, all the studies suddenly agree: the processed meat is bad for the health: cardiovascular accidents 1 and cancers 2!

What does “processed meat” exactly mean?
Meat that has undergone some transformations (and, unfortunately, whose techniques or additives are often carcinogenic): fast food, snacks, bacon, sausages, salami, processed ham (very pink!), canned meat, meat in sauces, meatballs, kebab from around the corner, chicken nuggets, etc., etc., etc.

hamburger - drawing

Animals feed: grains

We must also consider the feeding of the animals: a grain-fed cow that had loads of antibiotics will not have the same effect on your health as a cow raised in grass fields . The studies confirm a clear difference in the quality of the meat: more vitamins A and E, antioxidants and omega 33.

So, beyond the high doses of antibiotics given to animals and found in meat4 (and resistant bacteria), the omega 6 cause many dysfunctions :

  • oxidation / inflammation
  • Cancer
  • obesity
  • cardiovascular problems
  • Immune Function Disorders5

On the chicken side, a study shows that feeding chickens with barley or wheat promotes the development of the disease Necrotic enteritis, which is a necrosis in the digestive tract6. Rather than switching back to proper feed, laboratories prefer producing digestive enzymes and try to fix the problem7. The business has no limits… Not being willing to know what they do with the meat we eat means letting them play with our health and that of animals!

grain-fed meat - comic

Needless to say, processed meat is almost always from grain-fed animals…

The cooking

Over cooking meat causes the production of carcinogens. This is especially true for the following cooking modes: grill, stove and barbecue 8.

carcinogenic grilled meat

It would be a shame to buy quality meat and make it carcinogenic by overcooking it…

Moderation ?

Finally, we must take into account the amount of meat we consume: like for many foods, we know that moderation can be beneficial while excess is dangerous.

A meta-analysis on colon cancer indicated that the risk increases by 17% per 100 g of daily red meat (probably high for grains), and 18% per 50 g of processed red meat daily 9. According to the recommendations of the National Food Agency of Sweden, the intake of red meat should not exceed 500 g per week 10. It still seems like a lot to me.

meat - butcher

On the other hand, there is no recommendation regarding the minimum consumption of red meat.

“Cholesterol”, “Triglycerides”: scary words… for wrong reasons!

The confusion comes from the fact that the excess of “bad cholesterol” (LDL – btw essential) as well as the excess of triglycerides (fats) in the blood are associated with a high risk of cardiovascular diseases. What we’ve been told is that these rates are directly related to the lipid and cholesterol levels of our diet. We know today that it is completely false. Once again, it is the sugar to blame!

beware of fat meat - comic

In addition, the animal fat (saturated fatty acids) that we consume are too often of poor quality 11: fast foods, snacks and other processed products. In animals exposed to high doses of toxins, the body eliminates them from the blood by trapping them into fat cells (the same mechanism happens in humans). It is easy to understand how the fat from animals raised in poor conditions can be very dangerous for our health.

Personally, when I consume meat – which is not very often, and good quality – I eat the fat (and that of the plate of my neighbor), and I’m doing fine on that side! I eat a lot of eggs and fats of all kinds – olive oil, coconut oil, but not too many omega 6 (sunflower oil, etc.) – and I just had a blood test recently: my levels of cholesterol and triglycerides are pretty satisfying!

Beyond health: being responsible

Suffering animals

Choosing quality meat is not just about your own health. It is also a matter of ethics and responsibility. I keep meeting people who have no idea of the of animals raising conditions, as well as the shameful methods of many slaughterhouses. Many people prefer not to know, so using their ignorance as an excuse not to change their habits. It’s a shame…

hens in a cage - comic

To learn more about animal cruelty, google it for your own country. In France we have a good site called L214, whose goal is to make us fully aware of the atrocities inflicted daily on the animals we eat, and fight against them.

Beyond suffering, giving grains to animals that are designed to eat grass is just wrong. We make them sick consciously, and we stuff them with antibiotics to keep them alive…

Being responsible means investigating about the conditions of raising (and killing) of the meat you eat.

Ecology

Cattle farming is the biggest source of pollution on the planet. If you have not seen the movie Cowspiracy, I would recommend it. The world is overpopulated today, and we keep on destroying it, especially to meet the never-ending rise of meat consumption.

intensive cattle breeding

Beyond health, ecology is for me the main reason to reduce my meat consumption (then the suffering of animals, then health).

Find your own balance

Some find their happiness in being vegetarian or even vegan. Others have a 100% meat diet… and yes, it does exist! They often are people who have digestive problems with all vegetables and starchy foods.

find your balance - comic

It’s up to you to find the amount of meat that makes you feel responsible and healthy at the same time!

Conclusion

It seems to me that people are confused, and some people will probably reduce their consumption but continue to eat processed meat from MacDonald… we shouldn’t follow a trend without trying to understand why. There is certainly a quantitative problem, but it is above all a matter of quality!

Our eyes are often pointing in the wrong direction: we try to avoid fat and cholesterol, we think that the chicken is less dangerous than beef… we must rather wonder about the transformation of the meat and the conditions of animals raising. This is where the difference is.

The consumption of meat is therefore in the center of many stakes: we need to find a balance between our own health, animals welfare and ecology. For my part, my consumption varies from one week to another, but I try to maintain an average of 2 times a week.

One last word: it is not possible to force people to become vegetarian. But, we can tell them what is happening, what is in stake, and let them take their own decisions.

And you, what is your relationship with meat? Leave a message in the comments!

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  1. Association between total, processed, red and white meat consumption and all-cause, CVD and IHD mortality : a meta-analysis of cohort studies.
  2. Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Forensic Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition
  3. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidants in fed-fed and grain-fed beef [ /note].

    On the other hand,  grains contain a lot of omega 6 (sunflower oil, etc.), which is dangerous for health at high doses (for both animals and humans). These omega 6 are logically found in animals fed with these grains[note] Fatty Acid Profiles, Meat Quality, and Sensory palatability of Grain-Fed and Grass-fed Beef from Hanwoo, American, and Australian crossbred Cattle

  4. A Review of Antibiotic Use in Food Animals: Perspective, Policy, and Potential
  5. Prostaglandin E₂ production in mice is reduced by the intake of fed sources of red meat.
  6. Necrotic enteritis: effect of barley, wheat and corn diets on proliferation of Clostridium perfringens type A.
  7. Effects of diet type and enzyme addition on growth performance and gut health of broiler chickens during subclinical Clostridium perfringens challenge.
  8. Neal D. Barnard, MD, “Foods Against Cancer: An Update.” Good Medicine (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), Spring 1996 . 16
  9. Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: meta-analysis of prospective studies.
  10. Bjerselius R, Konde ÅB, Färnstrand JS. Konsumtion av rött kött och charkuteriprodukter och samband med tjock-och ändtarmscancer av – risk – och nyttohanteringsreport . Uppsala, Sweden: Livsmedelsverket; 2014
  11. Lean meat and heart health.

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