Mythbusting – Is Red Meat Really The Source Of All Evil?

12 min read

The Fall From Eden

Each time I step onto the soapbox and start spelling out the many marvellous benefits of a steak-centric diet, it can paint me a shade more as a guy who’s just bent on being anti-establishment. After all, hasn’t red meat been associated with all manners of health risks? We’re about to tackle that head-on. 

It certainly has been a rough patch for steak press, and it’s been costly. Over the past few decades, chicken has comfortably overtaken beef as the world’s favourite meat source, due to a myriad of allegations being thrown against the latter. But it could be due for a break and reversal in fortunes. 

By the end of this article, you may be able to make the call on whether I’ve stepped onto this diet for the sake of counter-culture. Perhaps we already know everything there is to know about nutrition, and any further steps are unnecessary. And I could always be a shill who’s been paid off by Big Farm Foods.

Before things have their chance to get murky, here’s what we do know about red meat.

  1. Contains high amounts of saturated fat
  2. Raises LDL
  3. Is also a high protein source
  4. Is meat rather than a vegetable
  5. Was not included in the Garden of Eden diet

Basing off those plain facts, there have been some classic health risks plastered on red meat for the past half-century. Ones that you’ll already be more than familiar with, hence why everyone picks chicken these days, despite red meat containing far higher amounts of nutrition.

Red Meat…

  1. Causes heart disease
  2. Has too much protein
  3. Is a carcinogen 
  4. Quickens global warming
  5. Source of inflammation
  6. Shortens your lifespan

1. Red Meat Causes Heart Disease

The tale of cholesterol is old and strained at this point, but it still holds a decent amount of sway. The current NHS guidelines recommend keeping saturated fat intake below 30 grams a day. And it’s saturated fat that happens to be found abundantly in red meat.

It all kicked off in the 1960’s when Ancel Keys pulled surveys from seven countries and drew a line to connect the likeliness of heart disease and saturated fat intake. Which happens to be found in great amounts in red meat. It later transpired that Keys had intentionally left out the countries that would have broken his hypothesis. He was cherry-picking data to come up with the answer he was looking for. 

Unfortunately, the American Heart Association (AHA) soon picked up on this, and the hypothesis became canon. It was postulated that increases in Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) led to the formation of arterial plaques, and atherosclerosis. And LDL does increase on a high-fat diet. 

But this is a case of band-aids for abrasive wounds, because 88% of these wounds have them. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. The increase of LDL, and total cholesterol, has actually been associated, across multiple studies, with reduced risk of mortality. Something doesn’t add up. What gives?

As it happens, LDL that gets treated to oxidation and glycation can hasten arterial plaques. And you can throw up a few guesses for what causes them. 

Oxidation – Free radical damage from seed oils, inducing insulin resistance.

Glycation – Damaged by high blood sugar, worsening insulin resistance. 

Would either of them be a problem in a healthy diet with generous servings of red meat? Definitely not. In the carnivore version? Even less so.

2. Red Meat Has Too Much Protein

Surely protein can’t be a bad thing? Besides calories, it’s the one consistent factor that pulls together successful diet strategies. With maybe an exception made for the fancy version of keto, where it’s 90% fat and sky-high ketone numbers. But that’s largely because ketosis is protein sparing. All in all, protein has a great track record.

Then there’s the alleged catch. Protein is dose-dependent, and excessive amounts can result in a shorter lifespan. The baton has been taken up by vegans, where protein is understandably lower. You can only get so much without putting four scoops of pea protein powder in the morning shake. So it’s easier to accept that the extra protein would be not just unnecessary, but downright dangerous.

The issue around protein has much to do with the way it triggers the anabolic MTOR pathway, which essentially enables the cells in the body to replicate and increase. This could be seen as a good thing, as in you build more muscle, but this has also been associated with putting ageing on the fast track and making cancer more of a risk.

I’ve already written on the topic of MTOR, suggesting that it should be balanced out by AMPK, better compared as feasting to fasting. So overactivation of MTOR can be bad for the metabolism. Red meat, however, isn’t the issue in all of this, as it activates MTOR through the amino acid leucine, which has much less of an effect than insulin.

Insulin is activated by carbohydrates. So in the spirit of longevity, it would make much more sense to restrict sugars instead. That puts vegans in a tough spot.

3. Cows Are Causing Global Warming

Heard this one before? If you haven’t, the short-end of the story is that the rearing of cattle is speeding up the process of climate change. The combined mass of our beef is releasing excessive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. More than mother earth can handle.

And before that thought settles in, let me snuff it out. I’m not a climate change denier. 

Here are the facts. Cows contribute to 14.5% of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. A small portion of overall emissions when including Mother Earth, but certainly still significant in the grand scheme of things. But here’s also what gets left out. The same cows that are carbonating the air are also dropping big fat heaps of poop that sequester carbon in the topsoil. It’s a natural cycle that at the worst, has a net neutral effect on carbon. What’s more, the methane they belch into the air only hangs around for 12 years, rather than C02, which can last for 100.

Just like the other allegations that get weighed against meat, there’s a chunk of extra context that goes missing. It’s another tale of cherry-picked data. When people want a certain answer, they’ll find it.

It’s easy to throw meat under the bus, because you won’t be going to toe-to-toe with big pharmaceuticals with the big bucks. Instead it will be Joe the farmer, who won’t care enough to bring in a lawsuit. And probably won’t have the money either.

Mono-cropping on the other hand? That’s not exactly planet-friendly. 

4. Red Meat Causes Cancer

Eating red meat has been often linked to the likes of colorectal cancer, and the studies tend to follow a similar story. One such paper by Oxford University, stated that eating red meat once a day increased risk of bowel cancer by a fifth

And here’s a quote picked straight out of that study.

“Participants in the highest category of reported total red-meat intake were slightly older, more likely to be smokers, had a higher BMI and body-fat percentage, had a higher alcohol intake and had lower intakes of fruit, vegetables and fibre. The same was true for processed-meat intake, with the exception of age, which was similar between the two categories.”

Red meat gets picked out here for no particular reason. It’s a simple correlation made out to be the cause of the problem. The study’s title should simply be: ‘People who don’t care about their health are more likely to get rectal cancer’.

There are also studies also showing that bacon has a protective effect against colon cancer growth, and suggesting it can play a role in treating existing tumors. So including processed meat in your diet won’t make this a high-risk game.

5. Red Meat Is Inflammatory

Steak is heavy, it sits for hours in the digestive tract, contains numerous toxins and carcinogens, and is overly acidic on our sensitive stomachs. And so health-conscious people skirt round the slabs of red meat and head to the vegetable aisle to lighten their stomachs. Much of the promise of a vegan diet revolves around expelling inflammation once and for all. That’s how most testimonials go.

‘I got rid of meat and suddenly felt so much more energy. My mood swings were gone.’ Karen

What are the chances that none of Karen’s previous issues were down to eating too much meat? Getting rid of processed foods is a huge upgrade for one’s health. Dairy can cause plenty of problems. Then there’s the power of placebo, a hell of a drug by its own right. 

Red meat itself doesn’t contain toxins, because the stomachs of ruminants are specially designed to convert plant food into bioavailable nutrients. The only issue tends to be the histamine content, which can cause reactions in sensitive folk. But even that can be managed by prioritising fresh cuts of meat.

One more thing to note is the fact that meat is acidic, and this has been used by some to claim that a meat-centric diet can upset the pH balance of the body. So you fix that by eating more alkaline foods, like greens, and reduce meat. And you can do that while disregarding the additional fact that the body controls pH levels very tightly, as it’s a matter of life and death.

6. Red Meat Shortens Your Life

The combination of all these negatives? Eat red meat, and your chances of living to a ripe old age gets decimated. Maybe your arteries get clogged, perhaps it’s the cancer, or you just get so fat that diabetes gets to cash in. Whichever disease delivers the final blow, your life gets snuffed out before it gets a chance to wrap things up. 

The hypothesis that red meat causes heart disease has more to do with the unfortunate issue of unhealthy user bias. Because guess who’s most likely to eat red meat? People who don’t care about the much-vaunted deleterious effects of the said food. The ones who also smoke, because they don’t sweat over the thought over their lungs turning to crisp. They drink, eat plenty of processed carbs, and skip their GP check-ups. Funnily enough, they tend to live shorter lives. 

Interestingly, the opposite is true for epidemiological studies on vegetarians. By becoming vegetarian, they’re already one up on the scoreboard of health-conscious decisions. Therefore, they tend to take care of themselves. Down go the chances of smoking, drinking, and all the other tried and trusted methods for whittling one’s lifespan. Adding on to that, vegetarians in the western world typically hail from a more affluent background. It’s an expensive way of eating. Even when compared to my style of eating three pounds of steak a day.

What would happen if the roles were reversed, and meat became the way of the privileged? You only need to spin the globe across to Asia, where the rich eat the meat, and the poor settle for vegetables. And as it happens, red meat has been traced to longer lifespans.

It’s the whole chestnut with correlation against causation again. Collect enough samples, and you can draw whatever lines you like. Context always matters.

None of this is meant to settle the meat vs plant debate, but I’ve set this article up to offer counterpoints to the arguments you’ll usually here. By all means, do some of your own digging and explore these topics further. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing in the research to dissuade me from seeing carnivore as a long-term diet, and red meat as the cornerstone of human nutrition. 

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