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You might be surprised to hear that what most say regarding the health issues of eating red meat or animal products isn’t quite the full story. In fact, oftentimes it’s outright false, but we’ll get into that soon. This article plays ‘devil’s advocate’ and unravels the ball of confusion often surrounding animal products. 

What we’re told about red meat

Red meat has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and it’s understandable. After all, red meat tends to be higher in saturated fat compared to the alternatives. And as we all know, saturated fats are bad for us. 

Or are they?

Let’s back up for a second. Why are saturated fats deemed bad for our health? 

‘Because diets high in saturated fats contribute to heart disease’ is often the response. 

But is that really true? Is it a scientific fact that a diet high in saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease?

Several papers have been published reporting a correlation between the two, to be sure. But, believe it or not, to date, there’s been “no proven causation effect between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease” [1].

If we understand the nuance between correlation and causation, a main pillar of the health-based argument against a diet rich in red meat becomes weaker than my grandmother’s grip strength. 

Speaking of which, a recent study conducted over some 14 years monitored the effects of a diet high in animal protein compared to that of plant protein on the ageing population. They measured both functional impairment and strength loss. Here are their findings;

“Higher AP intake and higher levels of physical activity and SMM were independently associated with lower risks of functional impairment and greater preservation of grip strength in adults over the age of 50 years.” [2]

Those consuming more animal protein were found to maintain muscle mass and suffer less functional impairment!

The Diet-Heart Hypothesis

The bad wrap that animal products high in saturated fat get seems to stem from a study in the 1970s, where the “diet-heart hypothesis” was introduced. Therein, researchers suggested that dietary saturated fat consumption correlated with plasma cholesterol and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. [3] 

However, further reviews of this study have found this suggestion to be flawed. 

“Available evidence from randomized controlled trials shows that replacement of saturated fat in the diet with linoleic acid effectively lowers serum cholesterol but does not support the hypothesis that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease or all causes. Findings from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment add to growing evidence that incomplete publication has contributed to overestimation of the benefits of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.” [3]

The initial conclusion of this diet-heart hypothesis made quite the leap from the results showing a reduction in serum cholesterol level to implying that this would translate into a reduction in heart disease risk. While the evidence did show a reduction in cholesterol, there was no hard data supporting the further assertion that this reduction would decrease the risk of heart disease. 

Processed Vs Unprocessed Meat

The most popular studies referenced in the anti-meat debate make the mistake of lumping together all kinds of red meat. Whether processed or unprocessed. 

But this indiscriminate approach doesn’t address the obvious differences between processed and unprocessed foods in general. Studies that have separated these two categories, however, all agree on one thing;

“higher processed meat intake was significantly related to higher overall mortality risk.” [4]

“Substitution of a combination of poultry, eggs, fish, pulses, nuts and low-fat dairy for processed meat was associated with lower risks of overall, cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.” [4]

Researchers still haven’t decided whether unprocessed red meat has negative, positive, or no net health effects at all. As there is evidence supporting all three viewpoints.

“red meat intake (unprocessed) was inconsistently associated with total mortality, with some cohort studies showing significantly positive associations [4, 32, 33], but most other studies show no significant positive association [2, 8, 34, 35], and sometimes even show inverse associations.” [4]

“In conclusion, this large prospective study suggests that, while red meat intake (unprocessed) is not related to increased mortality” [4] 

Specificity matters

Getting granular when it comes to science really matters, especially if we’re to label an entire category of food as having adverse health benefits. Not all red meat is the same just as not all parts of a chicken have the same nutritional content either. 

That’s not to say that relying on plant-based proteins is in any way invalid. It can be an effective form of dietary protein provided that diet is diverse enough to cover all essential amino acids [5]

At the end of the day, a healthy diet is different from person to person, and there is no one diet that’s perfect for everyone. But one thing is clear; there’s no undisputed evidence to suggest that non-processed red meat is unhealthy. In fact, contemporary research indicates it could be quite the opposite. 

References

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26268692/

[2] https://www.clinicalnutritionjournal.com/article/S0261-5614(20)30330-7/fulltext

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27071971/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6451725/ 

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723444/