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Not all red meat is created equal – some isn’t even good enough to be considered food.
Yet when a news article talks about red meat being bad for you, you can bet the author (or the study behind the news) failed to distinguish between processed meat and unprocessed meat, as well as overcooked meat and properly cooked meat. That’s not even considering grass-fed meat vs. industrial meat, which I’ve blogged about extensively.
“Red-meat-is-bad” articles don’t always deserve a rebuttal because *most* red meat actually is bad for you. However, it’s a major mistake to say all red meat is bad for you. This post serves to confront misleading headlines about red meat and diabetes risk. Let’s ask a few questions, see what the science actually says, and talk about the Bulletproof recommendations.
Processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, deli meats etc. contain high omega-6’s, often have mold toxins called mycotoxins, and nitrates that can combine with bad gut bacteria. All of these can be correlated with an increased risk of diabetes. Instead, insist on eating grass fed, low toxin meat to promote good health and optimize performance.
Research Doesn’t Distinguish Between Processed Red Meat and Unprocessed Red Meat
When articles suggest red meat causes chronic diseases like diabetes, you would expect a high degree of specificity and accuracy. Unfortunately all you get are alarming headlines and half-truths.
When you see blog posts like “Hot Dogs, Bacon and Red Meat Tied to Increased Diabetes Risk,” you should ask yourself how the authors justify lumping hot dogs (a blend of soy, wheat, MSG, and cast off animal parts) in with meat and what the study design looked like. Of course, the recent news about diabetes referenced a study that did not distinguish hot dogs, bologna and deli meats from unprocessed red meats. It also only used questionnaires vs actual tests, and failed to take into consideration how the meat was cooked.
This study says that increasing red meat consumption over time is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), but all conclusions were based off participants’ self-reported food frequency questionnaires (FFQ). FFQs are notorious for accuracy issues that inhibit researchers from drawing honest correlations.
Because many studies like this one show mixed results using unreliable measures, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) conducted a systematic review to distinguish between types of meat. This review found that eating processed meat was associated with a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes; however, the researchers did not find any higher risk of diabetes among individuals eating unprocessed red meat, such as beef, pork, or lamb.
This study defined unprocessed red meat as any meat from beef, pork, or lamb that hasn’t been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or with the addition of chemical preservatives. Examples of processed meats include salami, sausages, hot dogs, and lunch meats. HSPH researchers suggests that more research is needed into which factors in processed meats contribute to poor health and diabetes.
With the current efforts to update the United State government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, policy makers should focus on reducing intake of processed meats for multiple reasons.
How Processed Meats Harm Health and Increase Risk of Diabetes
A) Most processed meats throw off your omega-6:omega-3 ratio
Processed meats fed from soy and corn also have extra omega-6 oils. The correct balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is essential to optimizing your health and reducing your risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, and rheumatoid arthritis. According to anti-aging researchers, the minimum ideal ratio of omega-6 oil to omega-3 is 4:1, but the typical Western diet is between 20:1 and 50:1 because people consume far too many processed and fried foods like vegetable oils and industrial meat.
Although all meat, even grass-fed, contains some omega-6’s, processed, cured, and overcooked meats contain higher levels of oxidized toxins in omega-6’s called 4-Hydroxynonenal (HNE). These toxins are absorbed into your tissues and cause inflammation, which drastically increases fat oxidation in your cells.
This is one reason most studies on meat consumption and health are woefully inadequate – they fail to consider how the meat is cooked.
B) Dry-cured meats are breeding grounds for mycotoxins
Mold toxins are common contaminants of all industrial meat, but there are even more in dry-cured meat products. Mold toxins, also known as mycotoxins, are damaging compounds produced by various molds and fungi. In addition to causing poor human performance, they can also cause cancer, brain damage, and heart, liver, and kidney disease. High performance people should minimize all routes of exposure.
C) Bad gut bacteria mixed with processed meats may decrease insulin sensitivity
Your gut bacteria help to maintain your health, partly by maintaining the intestinal barrier that prevents toxins from entering your bloodstream. Bad gut bacteria actually form new toxins from processed meats, and increase their ability to enter your body.
Poor quality processed meats tend to be pumped with antibiotics that are harmful to gut flora. Studies show that antibiotics cause a profound and rapid loss of diversity and a shift in the composition of the gut flora that can not be recovered without dietary interventions.
Nitrates in processed meat, especially bacon, get a lot of attention. Although processed meat contains up to 50% more nitrate than unprocessed meat, nitrates themselves are only a problem when you have bad gut bacteria. With an imbalanced gut flora, diabetes experts say that nitrates lessen the release of insulin, which reduces glucose tolerance and increases risk of diabetes. This negative effect on glucose levels helps explain why Harvard researchers found that eating just one serving a day of processed meats (i.e. two slices of salami or a hot dog) was linked to a 20% increase in risk for diabetes.
Bad gut bacteria will also make nitrosamines from dietary nitrate. More on that below.
D) Nitrosamines in processed meats are linked to increased risk of stomach cancer
Swedish researchers found a higher risk of stomach cancer among those who ate processed meat.8 In Hawaii, researchers followed participants for seven years and concluded that those who ate the most processed meat showed a 67% greater risk of pancreatic cancer over those who did not eat processed meat.
The best way to avoid nitrosamines is to avoid overcooking processed meats, or insist on eating grass fed meat cooked on low heat. If you do choose to eat processed meats on occasion, you can help prevent nitrosamine formation in the body by taking at least 250 mg of vitamin C with your meal, or a lot more. (I do at least 1 gram.) Vitamin C with red meat can increase iron absorption. Increased iron levels (ferritin levels) are correlated with diabetes. Elevated iron levels are not normally an issue for menstruating females, but men should get their iron levels tested regularly, or just donate blood every 3-6 months.
Your Solutions to Reduce Risk of Diabetes
- Avoid processed meats, unless they are cured with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and nitrates at the same time, which prevents nitrosamine formation. I cure my own bacon this way. Most often, insist on grass fed meat, wild-caught fish, or other low toxin unprocessed meats. Celery powder is simply organic nitrite; don’t be fooled.
- Eat a doctor-recommended diet to better balance your omega-6:omega-3 ratio and reduce intake of mycotoxins.
- Aim for around 50-70% of your calories from high quality fats and oils to prevent eating too much protein and promote a healthy omega-6:omega-3 ratio.
- Cook your food correctly. Cook your foods on moderate to low heat for shorter periods of time, erring on the side of less rather than more. However, the right cooking methods vary for each type of meat.
- If you do eat processed meat, take at least 250 mg of vitamin C with it to help block nitrosamine formation in the gut. Men should give blood on occasion too to prevent excess iron buildup.
- Work on improving your gut flora.