We are told that red meat is bad for us because it gives us cardiovascular disease. We are also told that red meat is a cause of cancer. These memes are promulgated repeatedly ad nauseum by the mainstream medical establishment. and even amongst nutritionist this viewpoint is a widely held belief. But is red meat really a cause of disease? Or have people misunderstood the nutritional literature either intentionally or unintentionally? Is this more a case of people maintaining a belief by finding evidence to support their viewpoint rather than being objective about the data?
Cause And Effect
Observational studies confirm that meat eating is associated with an increased risk of both cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, an association does not prove a cause and effects. While such an association may suggest that meat is a cause of disease, it could also suggest that another unknown variable, associated with eating meat, or a particular type of meat, may be the actual causative factor. This is a major problem with observational type studies and one that is often completely misunderstood.
It is known that processed meat is a cause of cancer. The science behind the mechanisms by which this happens in clear. Processed meat causes cancer because it contains nitrites and nitrates that are used to preserve the meat. In the gut, these are converted to carcinogenic nitrosamine compounds which act on the wall of the intestines and turn cells cancerous. This explains the increased risk of gut cancer with processed meats. However, no such effect is evident from fresh meat as nitrites and nitrates are not present. Including processed meats into any study investigating the health effects of meat therefore biases any results.
It is a fact that non-organic sources of meat contain high levels of hormones and other drugs, given to the animals to increase growth rates. Many of these chemicals are known to increase the risk of cancer because they increase the growth rate of cells and this can produce an internal milieu more akin to cancer formation. Because many of these chemicals are fat soluble they can accumulate in adipose tissue over time. Regular intakes of such poisoned meat can therefore cause disease, particularly cancer. These hormones can also be present in milk from conventionally farmed animals.
Omega 6 to Omega 3 Ratio
Conventional farming feeds cattle and other animals grain to increase growth rates and body weight. This fattens the animals and increases profit for the farmers. However, the feed they use increases the omega 6 concentrations within the meat to much higher levels than would normally be found. In contrast, grass fed animals accumulate omega 3 fatty acids in their meat because such fatty acids are naturally present in the grass As high intakes of omega 6 fatty acids and low intakes of omega 3 fatty acids are associated with disease of inflammation, this is another reason red meat can cause disease, particularly cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Another problem for those that claim that red meat is a cause of disease is that red meat eating is associated with a Western diet. It is very hard to pin the blame on the red meat when the diet of such individuals also contains a high number of proven disease causing compounds. For example, those that eat more red meat also eat more sugar, more trans fats and more refined carbohydrates. The fact that the Maasai eat almost nothing but red meat and full fat dairy product, yet have virtually no cancer or cardiovascular disease, is evidence enough that red meat is not a driver of disease.
Fresh Organic Grass Fed Meat
If nitrites, nitrates, a high omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid ratio, hormones, chemicals and a Western diet are the cause of disease, it seems strange to blame red meat. Red meat devoid of these substances, and eaten as part of a traditional diet is not disease causing. In fact red meat is a necessary part of the human diet because it provides an absorbable form of iron and is a high quality protein. The truth is also that organic grass fed meat tastes better than conventionally farmed alternatives and it also makes far superior food. Switching to organic meat not only stops disease but also increases enjoyment of the diet and is therefore worth the extra cost.