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.
It’s (Possibly) a Cancer-Causer
Our cardiovascular systems aren’t the only thing at risk, according to research. Scientists have been studying the effects of red meat on various cancers, as well. In 1996, it was reported that women age 55 to 69 who consumed red meat “frequently” were more likely to develop lymph node cancer. Interestingly, a fact sheet about the correlation between meat consumption and breast cancer, published in 2000, found that studies implicating red meat have proven mostly inconclusive—instead, eating more vegetables and fruits was touted as a more effective way to prevent breast cancer.
In 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research found that certain cancers—lung, pancreas, and stomach, to name a few—were possibly caused by excessive red meat consumption. The meta-analysis of previously published studies explains, “Eating meat may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, but, owing to differences in the results and design of studies examining this question, it is not possible to be sure about this risk.” The connection between colorectal cancer and processed red meat high in saturated fat appeared to have been proven by the most extensive research, including a 2005 study that found that limiting red meats would likely decrease the colorectal cancer risk. In an editorial about the study, Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote, “Fortunately, substituting pistachio-encrusted salmon and gingered brown basmati pilaf for roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy is not a culinary sacrifice.”
Then in 2007, haem, the pigment in hemoglobin, was thought to have possibly been a contributing factor to red meat’s connection with colon cancer. In 2010, however, a critical summary of previous studies asserted that due to certain Western lifestyle factors—smoking, obesity, low intake of fiber and high consumption of alcohol and refined sugar—the connection implicating red meat as a cause of colon cancer wasn’t sound enough to back.
SEE MORE: 20 Recipes Full of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It’ll Just Kill You. Maybe.
As if all of that wasn’t scary enough, a study in 2009 made waves when it stated that regular consumption of beef and pork caused increased early mortality rates. And this wasn’t some minor study of a few hundred people eating whole smoked briskets. No, according to the Washington Post, it followed more than half a million “middle-aged and elderly Americans” and “found that those who consumed about four ounces of red meat a day (the equivalent of about a small hamburger) were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer.” Even worse, the Post wrote, “Sausage, cold cuts and other processed meats also increased the risk.”
Another extensive study on the matter in 2012 reaffirmed the hypothesis: Excessive consumption of red meat (over 42 grams a day, according to the researchers) correlated to increased mortality rates. But not everyone bought the findings. British nutritionist and obesity researcher Zoë Harcombe took the study to task in a blog post that outlined potential problems, including the facts that one of the researchers is a vegetarian (potential conflict of interest, she argues) and that we’re all actually going to die someday—regardless of what we eat. By the way, back in 2003, another study found that “very low” intake of meat—less than one serving a week—actually increased life expectancy. So, uh, yeah.
But the Cavemen Loved It! (Didn’t They Die Young?)
The paleolithic diet is officially a thing, but people have been eating like cavemen for years. The Atkins diet, a popular low-carb diet that focused on consumption of proteins and fats, sparked a flurry of controversy when it swept the nation in the late 1990s. Although a high-protein diet isn’t composed exclusively of red meat (dieters are encouraged to eat chicken, fish, cheese, and vegetables, too), if you’re nixing carbs in favor of animal protein, chances are you’ll be eating a lot more steak.
There’s been some positive talk about a meaty diet: In 2002, it was found that a high-protein Atkins-style diet decreased cholesterol levels and lowered weight—one of the original intents of Atkins. A subsequent study in 2003 also found evidence that an Atkins diet increased good cholesterol levels while lowering those of bad cholesterol. In 2010, however, a study claimed that Atkins dieters experience increased “all-cause” mortality rates, despite their potentially lower cholesterol.
In 2012, a study claimed that women who ate high-protein diets, like Atkins, increased their risk of stroke and heart disease by 28 percent. The paleo diet has come under fire, too. Scientific American in 2013 explained that while many paleo dieters claim eating plenty of red meat protects them from “modern” diseases like cancer, the impracticality of eating like a caveman in modern day renders the argument null. In 2014, research suggested that high-protein diets were as harmful to health as smoking and likely to cause cancer and diabetes (in people under 65, so seniors; eat up!) It’s also been noted that although cavemen didn’t get diabetes and heart disease, they also rarely lived long enough to develop those issues.
Was This Always Such a Big Deal?
We’ve been debating the health benefits and consequences of red meat for years in the public sphere, although the focus on specific ramifications, like cancer and high cholesterol, are a more recent topic of intrigue: In the early 1900s, much of the chatter around red meat revolved around a general state of wellbeing. In 1892, for example, the New York Times reported that an ideal summertime diet for a man of “ordinary size, doing ordinary physical or mental work,” included (among other things) 4 ounces of steak for breakfast, 2–3 ounces of beef, mutton, or lamb for lunch, and 3–4 ounces of “any red meat.”
On a speedier news day in 1904, readers were encouraged to eat less beef, mutton, and pork—and although that was because meat processors and packers were striking, the editorial did argue that “Everybody knows that the average American harms himself by including an oversupply of red meat in his daily ration.” Also making the case for moderation in all things meat, a report about a steel worker who had fallen ill in 1925 outlines the man’s recovery plan for a clean bill of health: In addition to limiting his wife’s pie and ice cream, getting plenty of sleep, and following “the Golden Rule,” he was advised to eat red meat just once a week. After three weeks of this diet, he declared himself to be “as hale and hearty as any other eighty-year-old man anywhere.” Surely, we all aspire to his example.
So Should I Eat This Steak or Not?
All this drama is a headache—it’s enough to have us reaching for a bottle of red wine (though that’s another story). With two clear camps pitted against each other, we’re finding ourselves situated, well, somewhere in the middle. While we’re not going to give up our burgers, steaks, meatballs, and chops, there’s also something to be said for a little moderation. After all, with so much good-for-you and delicious food to be cooked and eaten, we’re not about to give up anything completely. Life’s just too—well—short.