Mythbusting Red Meat – What Health Risks Should We Be Talking About?
For years, many have associated the consumption of red meat with various health issues and problems
Other issues surrounding the consumption of red meat on an environmental and ethical level have arisen too. These issues are being addressed by different people all over the world, with different views, such as vegans.
All things considered, I think it’s imperative to strip back the facts and look into how red meat consumption is impacting us from a health perspective. So, for the rest of this discussion I am not going to refer to the ethical or environmental implications of eating red meat, these are issues to be discussed another day.
‘Red meat’ is not simply just categorised by its colouring, according to Foodandnutrition.org:
“Virtually all dietary studies categorize poultry and fish as ‘white meat’ and four-legged land animals such as beef, pork and lamb as ‘red meat.’ Yet in culinary or cultural contexts, veal is often considered a white meat and duck or goose may be classified as red. Food scientists point to higher concentration of myoglobin and slow-twitch muscle fibres as the primary determinant of red meat; however, the dark meat of chicken or turkey usually has more myoglobin than veal or pork.”
So, there is a little more to this than just colour, meat is categorised as red when it is not classed as poultry or fish, minus a few exceptions. Land animals and game are mostly categorised as red meat.
So, what’s the problem with red meat?
It is assumed internationally that due to higher fat content and the chemical compounds found in red meat, it’s consumption is nutritionally bad for us. International research does almost assume that this is a fact. As a result of this, red meat consumption is generally linked to an increase in the development of Diabetes, Stroke, Heart Disease, Weight Gain and some Cancers.
According to Foodrevolution.org, a research team at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland have carried out a study on 536,000 participants between the ages of 50 and 71 over a 16 year period to assess eating habits.
“The results, published in the British Medical Journal, revealed that people who ate the most red meat were 26 percent more likely to die of nine diseases than those who consume the least. Heme iron, a type of iron only present in animal meat, may contribute to the risk of dying from cancer or heart disease. Risk of death from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, infections, kidney disease, liver disease or lung disease all increased with the amount of meat consumed, and those people with the highest meat intake doubled their chances of dying from chronic liver disease.”
This research, as with many research projects in this area have found that ‘Heme Iron’ is the main compound that has been associated with causing a number of these health problems. Moreover, the same research also suggests that high levels of certain nitrates (used as preservatives when curing red meat) can also help to contribute to the development of many health conditions.
The other big issue with red meat, as mentioned earlier is fat content.
It is no myth that red meat has a higher saturated fat content than white meat and fish, it is this fat content that gives the meat it’s tenderness and its taste. It sounds gross, but high-fat concentrations in red meat, make the meat tastier. Although the problem here is that the fat content can also help to contribute to associated health problems, as mentioned above.
High-fat food products encourage the buildup of plaque in our bloodstream. Plaque is a substance that is composed of fats that go undissolved in our blood. Therefore, plaque exists in our arteries in solid form, meaning blockages can occur that will eventually lead to the restriction of blood flow, a restriction that can go on to cause heart attacks and strokes.
How does this plaque form?
Well, according to Digitaljournal.com, new research is finding that the development of plaque could be triggered as a result of allergens that are present in red meat:
“It is established that specific allergens trigger an immunological response which is connected with plaque build-up and hence arterial blockages. Furthermore, there is a connection between immune response and inflammation in the heart, which leads to lasting damage, and levels of damage which become worse over time. New research shows that certain biomarkers for a red meat allergy are linked with these higher levels of arterial plaque. The biomarker is a class of antibody which is released in response to the main allergen in red meat. This is galactose-a-1, 3-galactose (a type of sugar), also referred to as alpha-gal.”
In this most recent research, 118 participants had blood samples taken from them to review this level of antibodies. The research found that these antibodies have developed in 26 percent of these samples.
“The researchers are of the view that the allergens influence the heart through inflammation. Over time this risk triggers pathogenesis of coronary artery disease. This is something that becomes an increased risk with those over 65 years old. In terms of how many people in the population have such an insensitivity to red meat, Laboratory Roots reports that for the U.S. population this is around 1 percent, with the proportion of asymptomatic people as high as 20 percent of the population.”
Simply put, inflammation of the heart can and will lead to the development of associated health problems. Allergens can play a part in this. According to Digitaljournal.com, lead research Dr. Coleen McNamara has concluded:
“This novel finding from a small group of subjects from Virginia raises the intriguing possibility that allergy to red meat may be an underrecognized factor in heart disease. These preliminary findings underscore the need for further clinical studies in larger populations from diverse geographic regions and additional laboratory work. The research has been published in the journal of the American Heart Association. The research paper is titled IgE to the Mammalian Oligosaccharide Galactose-α-1,3-Galactose Is Associated With Increased Atheroma Volume and Plaques With Unstable Characteristics—Brief Report.”
So, should we be eating red meat?
This is the complicated bit. The research does show that red meat is problematic for our health. However, many people still enjoy red meat as a part of a healthy and balanced diet. I guess this is when we need to make decisions as individuals, if we are at risk of the associated health conditions already (due to underlying health problems, hereditary problems etc) then perhaps avoiding red meat would be recommended? Moreover, you have to think about the other ways that you are putting yourself at risk, for example, are you a smoker or do you drink alcohol?
Leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle does not mean you have to stop consuming the things you enjoy. It is however about actually balancing those things. If you like red meat, enjoy it in moderation and be aware that the consumption of it, in high volumes could lead to health complications in the future.
Perhaps you could try swapping out your usual red meat consumption for alternatives, start by doing this once a week, before moving on to doing it a little more frequently. Turkey mince makes a great meat alternative to beef mince, or, go one step further and try Quorn mince, a vegetarian meat-free alternative. Fish is a very healthy alternative to red meat, so how about trying a nice tuna steak (a sustainably sourced one) as opposed to your usual steak?
It’s not about taking red meat out of your diet, it’s about compromise. Compromising, to look after yourself.
According to NHS.uk:
“Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals in your diet. However, if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, the Department of Health advises that you cut down to 70g, which is the average daily consumption in the UK.
Making healthier choices can help you eat meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet. But some meats are high in saturated fat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels. If you eat a lot of red and processed meat, it is recommended that you cut down.”
If you do have any concerns about any of the health problems mentioned in this post, please remember to consult your doctor. A professional dietician should also be consulted before adjusting your diet, if you’re ever unsure, always ask an expert for further advice!