Meat, and in particular red meat, has gotten a bad rep. Veganism is on the rise, and with it, heightened opposition against most everything that has to do with the production, sale, and consumption of animal products. Personally, I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I’m by no means herbivorous though. I include moderate quantities of some type of animal source food in pretty much all of my main meals. Seafood is a staple: however, I routinely make my way out of the ocean and onto dry land, where I derive nourishment from the terrestrial animal kingdom.
The reason I’m not as concerned about this section of our nutritional environment/food supply as vegans are is that I recognize that it’s always been there. For millions of years, we humans have been consuming meat (1, 2, 3, 4); hence, it’s irrational, from a Darwinian point of view, to assume that we’re not suited to eating the flesh of animals. This is not to say that I think all of the animal products that line the shelves of modern supermarkets are healthy for us (they certainly aren’t), or that it’s necessarily a good idea to make red meat the foundation of one’s diet; however, as I see it, there’s no reason to shun it altogether. Actually, I would say that doing so is not only unnecessary, but ill-advised…
The bright side of meat
I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive article about red meat for the longest time. I started out on one a while back, but I still haven’t gotten around to wrapping it up. For that reason, and also because I think red meat has gotten excessive amounts of bad press lately, I was happy to come across a great new evolution-oriented scientific paper that portrays red meat in a more favorable light.
The article, which title – Should dietary guidelines recommend low red meat intake? – immediately piqued my interest, was published in a recent issue of Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, a food science journal issued by the publishing company Taylor & Francis. It’s concise and to the point, yet comprehensive, drawing attention to many underappreciated aspects of red meat, which is in desperate need of assistance after having been overrun by hordes of political and environmental activists.
I can’t remember ever having come across a better review paper on this topic!
So, instead of spending a lot of time crafting a piece of my own on this issue, I thought I’d give some screentime to this hard-hitting paper, which echoes many of my own sentiments about red meat. Throughout, I thought I’d do what I often do in situations such as this one, which is to highlight parts of the paper that I feel are particularly important and/or telling…
Early on, after remarking that plant foods are increasingly being pushed in favor of animal products, the authors – researchers Frédéric Leroy & Nathan Cofnas – proceed to define the scope of the review, which I think is great, as it’s important to recognize that there are several different aspects to the red meat issue; all of which need to be considered, but not necessarily at the same time. Here’s what they had to say…
Contemporary arguments against meat eating appeal mostly to nutritional, environmental, and ethical considerations. The present review focuses on nutrition. Although the environmental and ethical arguments should certainly not be overlooked, these require separate analyses. … Ultimately, the conclusions will have to be integrated into a more holistic evaluation that balances nutrition, sustainability, and ethics.
Following this important note, Leroy and Cofnas set the stage for the rest of the review by stating that…
Humans are biologically adapted to a diet that includes meat.
After summarizing some of the most important evidence supporting this statement, the authors get into the important issue of whether we need to eat meat to be healthy. As I see it, they hit the nail on the head with the following reflections:
The fact that we are biologically adapted to diets that include substantial amounts of meat does not by itself prove that low-meat diets cannot be healthy. However, when it comes to virtually every other species, we generally take it for granted that it will flourish best on a diet that roughly resembles the one to which it was adapted. It would be, though not impossible, somewhat surprising if Homo sapiens turned out to be such a spectacular exception to this principle.
Leroy and Cofnas then go on to highlight the fact that legumes and B12 supplements, which vegans generally hold in high esteem and put a lot of trust in, are by no means a fully satisfactory replacement for meat, before pointing out that the research on which the meat-repressing dietary agenda is based has several limitations and weaknesses. Here’s the gist of their argument:
… there is a lack of robust evidence to confirm an unambiguous mechanistic link between meat eating as part of a healthy diet and the development of Western diseases.
After devoting quite a bit of time to dissecting research suggesting that red meat is bad for us, the two perceptive authors do something that is sadly often omitted from reviews and discussions of this type. What they do, which should be standard practise, is to turn their attention to the other side of the red meat tale. Because as we know, there are ‘always’ two sides to a story. Although it may not seem like it, based on today’s media reporting and nutritional trends, the one pertaining to red meat is no exception in this regard. I was particularly happy to see that the authors bring hunter-gatherers into the equation…
Dietary advice that identifies meat as an intrinsic cause of chronic diseases often seems to suffer from cherry-picking. One example of a fact that is typically ignored is that hunter-gatherers are mostly free of cardiometabolic disease although animal products provide the dominant energy source (about two-thirds of caloric intake on average, with some hunter-gatherers obtaining more than 85% of their calories from animal products). In comparison, contemporary Americans obtain only about 30% of calories from animal foods,
Also, of note, they highlight the fact that it’s far from clear that meat consumption equals greater disease risk…
Whereas per capita consumption of meat has been dropping over the last decades in the US, cardiometabolic diseases such as type-2 diabetes have been rapidly increasing. Although this observation does not resolve the question of causality one way or the other, it should generate some skepticism that meat is the culprit. Moreover, several studies have found either that meat intake has no association with mortality/morbidity, or that meat restriction is association with various negative health outcomes.
Moving forward, the researchers continue on the same path, where they explore the nutritional benefits of meat consumption, which are, contrary to what some vegans may claim, fairly extensive and significant, as highlighted below:
Throughout human history, meat has delivered a wide range of valuable nutrients that are not always easily obtained (or obtainable) from plant materials. A major asset of meat is of course its high protein value, with especially lysine, threonine, and methionine being in short supply in plant-derived diets. It brings in B vitamins (with vitamin B12 being restricted to animal sources only), vitamins A, D, and K2 (particularly via organ meats), and various minerals with iron, zinc, and selenium being of particular importance. Also, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA present in animal sources are only poorly obtained in vivo from α-linolenic acid conversion, making plants a suboptimal source. Despite being overlooked in most nutritional evaluations, meat also contains various bioactive components as taurine, creatine, carnosine, as well as conjugated linoleic acid, carnitine, choline, ubiquinone, and glutathione. These components can offer important nutritional benefits, for instance with respect to the optimal development of cognitive functions.
Seeing as there are so many nutritional benefits to eating meat, one would naturally expect that there are a number of nutritional downsides to not eating meat. This is the focus of the next part of the article, in which the authors come to the conclusion that the…
… official endorsement of diets that avoid animal products as healthy options is posing a risk that policy makers should not be taking.
If you want to get all the details, I recommend that you check out the paper in full.
Some things that are important to keep in mind
- More isn’t necessarily better
To say that red meat isn’t the villain it’s been made out to be isn’t the same as to say that we should embrace it, brining massive quantities of it into our diets. There’s no reason to go crazy. A moderate amount of red meat will go a long way towards fulfilling both one’s nutritional needs and appetite, particularly if one eats a variety of other animal source foods as well.
- Many of the meat products that line the shelves of modern supermarkets differ in several important respects from the meats that we’re evolutionarily accustomed to eating
Not all red meat is equally good – or bad, depending on how you see it – for us. This seems like a given, but it’s often overlooked nonetheless, as accentuated by the practise of throwing all read meat products – ranging from fatty sausages to lean beef to bacon – into one box that’s given the label ‘red meat’. Meat sourced from wild, naturally living animals, which is the type of meat that we evolved eating, differs in several important respects from modern industrially produced meats. This doesn’t just hold true for comparisons between unprocessed and processed meats, but also to some extent extend to comparisons between unprocessed varieties of different origin. Eating wild meat all the time may not be feasible for most people; however, that’s not the same as to say that such people may just as well avoid meat. By making an effort to seek out and buy the highest quality meat products one can find and afford, focusing on things such as the origin and fat content of the meat, one can make considerable headway towards bridging the gap that exists between the ancestral human diet and the modern one.
- Other concerns besides nutritional ones have to be taken into account when the sensibility of meat-eating is ultimately to be determined
As researchers Frédéric Leroy & Nathan Cofnas point out in their informative paper about red meat, a complete assessment of the meat issue would entail making several different considerations, including nutritional ones, ethical ones, and environmental ones. Ultimately, in getting down to the bottom line, everything will have to be put together. The environmental issue requires a thorough analysis that is beyond the scope of this article. I’m not an expert on sustainability. What I do know and would like to point out though, is that it is possible to produce meat in a much more environmentally friendly manner than we’re doing today. With that said, when it comes to the larger scales of public nutrition and the feeding of the world, one will obviously have to make certain compromises between what’s ideal, from a nutritional point of view, and what’s practical or sustainable.
In this day and age, meat eating is viewed with increasing skepticism and aversion; not just because it’s considered to be bad for the environment, which people have come to realise is in dire straits, but also because it’s come to be widely believed to be unhealthy. This latter view has been popularized by reports issued by health organizations that portray meat, and in particular red and processed meat, in an unfavorable light.
What’s often overlooked is that the research on which these reports are based has several limitations and weaknesses, and that animal source foods, including red meat, has been an important part of the human diet for millions of years, which suggests that meat not only isn’t bad for us, but that it may be inimical to cut it out of one’s diet altogether. This is not the same as to say that all red meat products are healthy or that it’s smart to eat a huge steak for dinner every day; however, there’s arguably no legitimate nutritional reason to avoid red meat altogether.