What Science Has to Say About Red Meat
By Rochelle Bilow
We know that red meat tastes great, and that’s reason enough for us to dig into a medium-rare steak with gusto. But in the last few decades, there’s been as much talk about its health benefits and/or risks as its flavor. Either red meat will lower your cholesterol and help you slim down (some studies say), or it’ll set you on the fast track to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (according to other studies). What’s a diner to do? Before you swap that sirloin for shiitakes, hang on just a moment. We’re looking to find an answer once and for all: Is beef good for you or bad for you? What does science say about red meat?
It’ll Stop Your Heart! Or Maybe Not!
One of the biggest complaints about red meat is that it’s bad for your cardiovascular health. In 1999, a study that compared heart disease in vegetarians, regular meat eaters, and occasional meat eaters found that vegetarians experienced the lowest rates of ischemic heart disease (hardening of the arteries). But another study conducted that year claimed that because saturated fats are to blame for heart disease, meat-eaters can happily live in health—so long as they consume leaner cuts. Shortly after, in 2000, the Weston A. Price Foundation spoke out against the red-meat naysayers, claiming that it’s not steak and lamb chops but refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils that are actually the cause of heart disease.
In 2004, research showed that women who consume excessive red meat are more likely to contract type-2 diabetes. Add that to a study conducted in 2009, which found that those who consumed red meat (beef, lamb, and pork, according to the researchers) were 30 percent more likely to die of heart disease and cancer. Instead of cutting out meat completely, the researchers suggested baking and poaching the meat rather than grilling or frying it. It would seem that if we just cut back on the burgers and poached our hot dogs, we’d be in the clear. (And in fact, earlier this summer we took a look at the science behind grilling and health—you can read it here.)
It wasn’t that simple, though, because a study in 2013 cited L-carnitine, a compound found in red meat, as the culprit. L-carnitine was proven to be devoured by bacteria that live in the gut, then converted to trimethylamine-N-oxide, a compound that has, in turn, been proven to clog arteries—in mice, anyway. Although L-carnitine is found in plenty of foods, like asparagus and ice cream, there’s a much higher concentration in meats like beef, pork, and lamb. The redder the meat, the greater amount of L-carnitine; 4 ounces of cooked ground beef contains 87–99 milligrams of the compound, more than 20 times what you’d find in a 1/2 cup of whole milk.
But wait. In June 2014, a study found that the dangers of red meat—heart failure and death in particular—were aggravated by processed red meat, like sausages and hot dogs. According to the study, men who consumed over 75 grams of processed red meat a day were 28 times more likely to suffer heart failure than men who ate less than 25 grams daily. For a little frame of reference, an Oscar Mayer all-beef hot dog clocks in at about 45 grams. So if we’re taking these findings for rote, we’ll be on the safe side if we keep the franks and charcuterie to a minimum—and stay away from the grill. In essence: practice moderation.