Both as an observer, as well as a nutritionist, the debate around red and processed meat consumption has always been of great interest to me. Long before epidemiological studies were available to provide us with more concrete data, the way my family and I ate was transforming. I sought to increase the total amount of locally-sourced vegetables, fruits, and plants, while slowly whittling the overall amounts of sugar and meat products. More whole foods, fewer (if any) processed ones. In the meantime, the red meat debate has gone from potential risk around the 2010s to certain, clear-cut health concern in 2018-9.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating to completely stop eating red meat, but when you hear of athletes consuming a full pound or more of red meat per day, they need educating. Even qualified sports coach, Paul Jenkins from dna-lean.co.uk, tells us that “contrary to popular belief, red meats should not be your first choice of quality protein. It’s just too high in saturates and eating too much can increase inflammation”.
As public opinion started to get accustomed to the idea of meat being bad for us, researchers and scientists felt empowered to make bolder claims. It’s not that the data wasn’t there – it always was and will continue to be, as more investigations appear every month that validate the same conclusion. Social consensus, however, took some time to instill and develop. It started out with models, “may, can, might,” a decade ago and now it’s grown into “red meats (like beef, lamb, pork) and processed meats (bacon, sausage, deli meats) are metabolized to toxins that cause damage to our blood vessels and other organs”.
Things are as straightforward as they can be. Eating just 1 less serving of red meat per day, which you can easily substitute with oily fish, could potentially lower your risk of mortality by just over 9% for men and 7.6% in women. That’s 3441 men out of the study’s 37,000 and 6308 women out of 83,000.
If you’re asking yourself why and how you’ll find the answers below.
The Risks Behind A High Intake Of Red Meat and Processed Meat Products
I teach people to see processed food items as dirty habits not to blame them for something they shouldn’t do – taboos often create more desirability, rather than deter us – but because of the multitude of chemicals, artificial flavors, and preservatives that have to be used in order to get a final processed product. If you didn’t eat something that does not look like food or belong in a kitchen in its raw form, why would you eat it when it’s neatly packaged and presented in a manner that is highly alluring to your senses, at an affordable cost? There’s a trade-off going on in the background and you’re not going to like it.
Eating just 168 grams (6oz) of red meat per day was shown to increase all-cause by 50% in men and by 35% for women. You’d think that other variables might have contributed to this steep number, but the multivariate statistical model of this study adjusted the data for age discrepancies, body-mass index, smoking status and alcohol consumption, levels of physical activity, family history of illnesses, and many, many more variables known to increase our mortality. These were the conclusions of the “Health Professionals Follow-up Study” and the “Nurses’ Health Study,” which tracked the participants for no less than 22 and 28 years, respectively. The total sample size of this investigation ran by the National Institute of Health – AARP was massive: 500,000 participants aged 50 to 70 years.
Although numbers tend to generalize in some instances, they rarely lie. We just have to read them right. Processed and read meat lead to very similar health risks, while poultry was found to be significantly less harmful (but still bad). The findings are corroborated once more by the Loma Linda University Health institute in California. The latter center examined the deaths of nearly 8,000 people over the timespan of 11 years. They focused on a severe limitation of the previous scholarship: namely how eating little red meat compares to eating absolutely none. But the results were the same.
The Health Drawbacks Of Eating Too Much Red Meat
Veal, mutton, lamb, beef, pork, and game are all red meat because meat from these animals contains higher levels of myoglobin. The latter makes them appear red when they are cut – hence the aspect and name. Conversely, processed meat products undergo extensive chemical treatment in order to improve texture and color, taste and shelf life. These processes see anything from smoking to salting, as well as the addition of chemical preservatives such as nitrates or nitrites in order to achieve either goal. Bacon, salami, ham, beef jerky, hamburger patties, or canned meat are examples of processed meats that also contain red meat.
Aside from the above mentioned, it was shown that meat contains both growth hormone and antibiotic residues that were used during the animal’s lifetime in order to benefit the production chain. This is so widespread that food safety authorities had to step in and issue regulation beyond which the presence of such substances is considered harmful for human consumption. These measurements disturbingly reflect the negative impact on our health that ingesting these products can have. Then, there’s also the fact that cooking red meat on your barbeque or in your pan (at high temperatures) produces heterocyclic amines, HAAs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are significantly associated with increased risk of cancer, particularly for the colon.
If this were not enough, this type of meat is also more likely to increase your risk of developing diabetes, coronary heart disease, heart failure, and stroke. I might have saved these for last, but they are the illnesses that claim the most casualties throughout developed countries all over the world. Meat is not solely responsible for them, but it plays a major role in their onset and development.
Switch to Wild Fish, Live Longer and Better
Scientists even found out which of the red meat nutrients is most responsible for increasing our risk of cardiovascular events and related illnesses. When the L-carnitine from meat is processed by our gut microbiota, the latter turns into trimethylamine-N-oxide, a compound that was shown to accelerate the clogging of artery walls. Switching red and processed meat products for poached, steamed, or lightly baked fish will not only take out all of the risks I’ve been talking about but also help you manage your triglycerides. Fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, and tuna have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to help reduce blood cholesterol, fortify our cardiovascular system, and promote overall weight loss. Adding more whole vegetables, whole fruits, and whole grains to the mix will further improve your health to a considerable extent.
If you are an athlete and worried that eating more fish will provide you with less creatine and hamper your performance. Worry not. Creatine supplementation is proven to be safe and if you supplement with at least 5 grams daily, your muscles will reach saturation point in around 3 weeks. By this time your performance will surely be more improved than when you were scoffing down red meat every day.
There’s entire psychology around meat consumption and it all revolves around the three N’s of justification – that it’s necessary, natural, and normal. Needless to say that this is a socially-acquired, rather than biologically founded formula. Some people even go as far as to claim religious justifications, health-related or food-related ones, if not outright deny factual, scientific facts. But switching to fish shouldn’t be as hard as going cold turkey, should it?
A recent study on the Danish population indicated that as many as 170 deaths from coronary heart disease can be avoided every year if Danes make this switch. That could be your father, spouse, or best friend. For me, it seems that taste and habit are trifling trade-offs when you’re considering something that will most certainly improve your life expectations. If this were not enough, regularly eating fish that was cooked in a healthy manner slows cognitive decline in old age, while also increasing cognitive performance.
Remember, though, that non-frying preparation is much healthier.
Breaking the Cycle
As a ritual practice, tradition is only as strong as the people behind it. If we take a more active role in protecting our health through nutrition, this too can become a custom. It may start small, with a family or a group of friends, but if we do it often enough if we chose to believe it and then experience the positive effects associated with it, entire communities can grow to bond over better food choices. This is not even counting the powerful impact that future generations have in terms of picking up our rituals and handing them down to their children. Some of the fondest memories I have from when I was a child involve family gatherings around home-cooked meals.
Israel already has a completely vegetarian village, Amirim, and a strong vegan community of over 5,000 African Hebrew Israelites in Dimona. Although I’m not (yet) an activist or food fanatic, the evidence is overwhelming. As a professional that deals with nutrition and coaching for performance on a daily basis, I am ethically compelled not only to acknowledge but also to integrate and spread this knowledge to others. Many switch from red and processed meat to fish for health and athletic benefits. They are undeniable, especially in old age.
However, I’d be more inclined to do it so that I am able to witness my children and grandchildren growing up and help them on the way to being happy. The world is tough enough as it is, what with the increased political and economic uncertainty at a global level, not to mention the climate changes we’re experiencing. But if we’re not alive to teach our children what’s important in life, who will?