Have you recently reduced your meat intake or swapped red meat for more chicken or fish?
Let’s face it, there is a public debate going on right now about meat. There are many messages out there these days that feed us an array of conflicting information. You don’t have to search hard to find someone promoting the belief that red meat causes cancer or other similar claims. Recently, I’ve even seen suggestions that grass-fed beef is even worse for the environment than factory-farmed meats.
It can be confusing to sort through so many mixed messages, but let me help put your fears aside. It is OK to eat red meat; it’s actually a perfect food for humans to eat. And in terms of global warming and carbon emissions, grass-fed beef helps the environment. Let me explain.
Red meat is packed with protein
Most people are familiar with the benefits of protein. It provides the necessary building blocks our bodies need to grow and heal. If you’re not getting enough, the body will start to break down your tissues, leading to a host of health issues.
What most people don’t realize is that the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for protein is the minimum amount of protein required to avoid loss of lean muscle mass.[i] It is not the optimal amount for health. [ii]
As a dietitian, I like to start most of my patients by suggesting they get 20% of their calories from protein. This means for someone eating 2,000 calories a day, in order to get 20% of their calories from protein, they should be eating 100g. That’s double the common dietary advice.
How can you get 100g of protein in a day? It’s about 4-6oz of animal protein per meal. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products contain the complete spectrum of amino acids and are the most digestible forms of protein.[iii]
So if you’re eating much less than that 20% number, try increasing your intake of protein-packed foods and see how you feel. Larger people may do better with even more protein.
Why should you consider eating more protein
One of the biggest bonuses of consuming more animal protein is that it fills you up and helps you lose weight. This is because protein is the most satiating macronutrient. [iv]
In one study, participants who increased their protein from 15% (the average American’s intake) to 30% of total calories naturally reduced their overall caloric intake and saw significant weight loss.[v] Another study showed that high protein intake lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduced abdominal fat.[vi] In those with type 2 diabetes, high protein diets (25% – 32% of caloric intake) led to weight loss and lower blood pressure and HbA1C levels, the long-term measure of blood sugar. [vii] High protein diets have also been shown to be beneficial for bone health. [viii] Eating too little can lead to fatigue, weight gain[ix], and hair loss.[x]
How much protein is too much?
Many traditional human civilizations lived on primarily animal-based diets, and their rates of diet-related chronic disease were much lower than those on a Western diet.
But just because they were eating mostly meat, that doesn’t mean that they ate “only” protein.
One study of an Eskimo population in 1855 found that when they were eating an “all meat” diet, their protein intake was only 44% due to high fat intake. During times of plenty, they would consume 4 to 8 pounds of meat a day, with an average daily intake of about 280g of protein and 135g of fat.[xi] Early American explorers survived for extended periods of time only on pemmican, a food made of dried lean meat mixed with fat, with a protein content of 20 to 35%.[xii]
And the concerns that too much protein causes kidney disease and cancer? In healthy people, there is no danger in protein intakes above 3g/kg. [xiii] It’s true that those with kidney disease should limit their protein intake, but there’s no proof that an increase in protein intake causes kidney disease. [xiv]
Red meat and cancer
The studies linking red meat to cancer are only able to show correlations, not cause. Just because eating something is associated with an outcome, doesn’t mean that particular food is what caused the problem. Most of these studies are looking at people who eat a traditional Western diet versus those who eat a vegetarian diet.
Think about a typical American’s eating and lifestyle habits compared to someone who shops at a health food store, eats a vegetarian diet, practices yoga, etc. The truth is, vegetarians are much less likely to smoke or drink, and they are also much more likely to exercise. They also tend to eat less processed foods and sugar. So, saying that red meat is the only factor causing disease is flawed logic.
In fact, a study that looked at people who shopped at health food stores (so, accounting for lifestyle factors) found no difference in mortality between vegetarians and omnivores. [xv] And when adjusting for confounding factors (i.e., lifestyle) a recent, extensive study found “No significant difference in all-cause mortality for vegetarians versus non-vegetarians.”[xvi]
But what about the China Study which compared the mortality rates of those whose diets were animal-based to those in rural China whose diets were rich in plant-based foods?
Correlations do not show cause. Perfect example: The number of people per year who drowned in a pool correlates with the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in that same year. [xvii]
Just because two things are associated, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily related.
Since increasing your red meat intake could help you lose weight, keep you full, and won’t kill you…Maybe it’s time to try eating some more.
But aren’t Americans eating way too much meat?
The short answer: No. If you look at the data, the assumption that we’re eating “too much” meat is not quite the reality. Since 1970, our intake of beef has declined from 2.7oz per day to 1.7oz per day, while our consumption of factory farmed chicken has doubled.
We’ve also increased our intake of caloric sweeteners, and our intake of grain products has gone up about 30%. We’ve even tripled our consumption of vegetable oils.
Our total actual intake of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs is only about 5.6oz per day, which is hardly “too much”. [xviii] Instead of blaming red meat for our heart disease and skyrocketing diabetes, it seems that the problem lies with our increase in processed grains, sugar and vegetable oils. Our bodies are starving for more protein; we are eating lower protein diets, but simply eating more calories.[xix]
Red meat is more than protein
It can be overlooked that animal protein has several additional benefits other than just being an efficient source of high-quality protein. Although often vilified as unhealthy, red meat is actually the best source of heme iron. Iron deficiency is the number one nutrient deficiency in the world, affecting 43% of children and 38% of pregnant women. [xx]
Compared to white meat, red meat is also richer in B12 and zinc. Many people on a plant-based diet are deficient in B12, which causes fatigue, confusion, numbness, cognitive impairment, and can lead to very serious (and sometimes irreversible) brain damage in children. [xxi] [xxii]
Beef and the environment
You might be thinking, “Isn’t all this meat bad for the environment?”
But the truth is, if we focus on consuming more animals that are eating grass — like beef, lamb, and bison — instead of those that eat primarily mono-cropped, GMO grains — chicken and pork — we can help improve soil and reverse climate change through our diet. Well-managed grazing animals can convert pastureland (where we are unable to grow crops) into nutrient-dense food while sequestering carbon.[xxiii] For a deeper dive into this topic, check out this post, in which I link to several videos that illustrate this concept.
In a recent response to the British Medical Journal, Richard Young of the Sustainable Food Trust said:
“The evidence suggests to me that the only sustainable way to get human edible food from existing grassland is to graze it with livestock, and where appropriate, grow arable crops in rotation with grass, not in continuous monocultures.” [xxiv]
So as our waistlines increase and our energy and health continue to decline, perhaps it’s time to “beef up” your red meat intake.
Simply remember this: Meat isn’t going to kill you, and well-raised animals are actually good for the planet.
It’s obvious that this topic is complex. And, although I wish I could cover all of the nutritional and environmental benefits of grass-fed beef in a single blog post, that’s not the most effective and informative way to share the realities of this matter.
I’m currently in the process of making a film called Kale vs. Cow: The Case for Better Meat. The film, which ButcherBox is helping to sponsor, takes a deeper look into our fears of eating meat. It shows doctors who are reversing disease by flipping the food pyramid on its head, takes you to farms that are regenerating their soil with the use of grazing animals, and explores how eliminating animals from our food system could cause more harm than good.
Learn more about the film and support its production at www.sustainabledish.com/film.
Diana Rodgers, RD, LDN, NTP, is a “real food” Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner living on a working organic farm west of Boston. She is the creative force behind the new film “Cow vs. Kale,” and is also an author, host of The Sustainable Dish Podcast, and the mom of two active kids.