There are a lot of strong opinions on eating meat. I don’t eat it. (Save for unusual circumstances).
However, due to the political, ethical, and cultural aspects of the topic people’s sense of affiliation is often so strong that a dissenting opinion is met with hostility, even if it’s well informed.
The point of this post is solely to talk about the nutritional benefits of eating meat. Obviously people feel strongly about animal treatment, and others come from cultures where meat eating is firmly entrenched in daily habits and to not eat it seems silly. I have no comparative advantage in those topics, so I won’t even go there. I’m a nutrition guy.
Is Eating Meat Bad For You?
The short answer is no, but you have to do it right, which can be tricky. As a general rule, vegetarians have better health outcomes than meat eaters. They usually have longer lives, lower obesity rates, and avoid the “diseases of prosperity” more often than meat eaters. This paper provides a good overview.
However, just because vegetarians are more healthy than meat eaters, does that mean that being vegetarian itself is more healthy?
The truth is, vegetarians in general are more health conscious and responsible about their well being than non-vegetarians. Most epidemiological studies suggest vegetarians drink less, exercise more, and are usually more conscientous than the general population.
When you compare health-conscious meat eaters to vegetarians, most of the observed health differences disappear.
However, even among the health conscious, meat eaters tend to suffer from heart disease and cancer more often than vegetarians. This is mostly due to the fact that meats have higher levels of saturated fat and the majority of meats have anti-biotics and weird nitrogen-based preservatives injected into them, and avoiding meat with these additives without giving up meat entirely is difficult to do.
Does Eating Meat Cause Cancer?
Meat all by itself does not cause cancer, but the type of meat that’s typically available to you does. For example, meat that’s treated with nitrites (nitrogen based preservatives) has a strong correlation to carcinogenesis, especially colon cancer. Nitrogen based preservatives often serve as pre-cursors to biological molecules called nitrosamines which have a strong correlation to tumor formation. But raw meat without any additives does not show the same correlation.
Nutritional Benefits of Eating Meat
The most remarkable health benefits of eating meat is its high protein content, and high levels of iron and zinc, which have a higher than usual bio-availibility than other foods.
Meat eaters typically have higher levels of all three of these nutrients, but you can find non-meat substitutes pretty easily. A common perception of vegetarian diets is that they lack protein, but that’s mostly a myth. Most vegetarians have an adequate amount of protein in their diet, and Americans in general get more than enough protein. All natural foods have some protein content, and if you get enough calories, then you’ll get enough protein too, unless you have unusual dietary requirements.
Likewise, leafy greens and sea vegetables have plenty of iron, zinc, and other minerals found in meat and regular consumption of the right plants (spinach, spirulina, chlorella, kale, etc) can give you enough micro-nutrients without eating meat.
Even in extreme circumstances, vegetarians have avoided many of the supposed dietary pitfalls of avoiding meat. For example, an 11 year study conducted on the elderly found that vegetarians didn’t suffer from vitamin b deficiency or muscle atrophy any less than meat eaters. In populations known for long lifespans, an absence of meat is a common denominator.
Grain Fed vs Grass Fed Beef
You’ll often see beef advertised as grass-fed in health stores and in pricey restaurants.
The common perception is that beef fed with grass is lower in cholesterol, has more “good” fatty acids, and contains a few anti-oxidants such as glutathione and super-oxide dismutase which are not found in grain fed beef.
Overall, the perceived health benefits of grass-fed beef are overrated. Let me explain.
First, it’s important to look at the most important aspects of eating meat. On the positive side, meat can give you a lot of protein, iron, and zinc. The presence of these nutrients is not significantly different in grain-fed or grass-fed beef. On the downside, you have the presence of carcinogenic compounds that might cause cancer. This has much more to do with how much the meat is processed than whether it’s fed with grass or grain. Processed meat (like jerkey and hot dogs) is usually festooning with weird nitrogen based compounds that don’t decay in your body for decades, while fresh, unprocessed meat is usually not.
Most of the advertised health benefits of grass fed beef are just not that important in the big scheme of things. For example, neither grain nor grass fed beef has a high concentration of “good” fatty acids compared to plant oils and veggies. Ditto for the anti-oxidants found in grass-fed beef. Likewise, there are a lot of reasons to suspect that the Omega6/3 ratio is not all that important to begin with. To make matters worse, a lot of the fatty acid content is lost when cooking, making the differences irrelevant.
A curious downside to grass-fed beef is that it’s much more harmful to the environment than grass-fed beef. Cows are little greenhouse gas producing factories, and animals fed on grass take a longer time to mature and require much more space and water to consume their calories than do grain-fed cows. The lower productivity of grass-fed pastures results in much more greenhouse gas emissions per animal than grain fed animals.
So overall, what does this mean?
It means you can eat meat without suffering from any of the perceived nutritional drawbacks associated with it, but it’s fairly difficult. I’d guess 90% of the meat presented to you fails to meet the ideal dietary guidelines you’d want to adhere to for optimal meat consumption.
Likewise, you can capture all of the benefits of meat consumption with plants, but I’d reckon it requires less pickiness.
Overall, if you’re going to eat meat, it’s important that it be high quality meat, and you should be okay.