Red meat consumption is arguably the most confusing topic in nutrition.
Boy oh boy. This one is fun. Park your “all or nothing” thinking as we take an unbiased dive into the nutrition science around red meat.
We’ll go through cancer risk, heart disease, the nutrients that can be found in red meat, preferable cooking methods, and whether you’re less of a man if you don’t eat red meat (that’s a dumb joke that some people unfortunately believe).
I’ll even correctly pronounce words like heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons so I sound smart and trustworthy. Then I’ll mispronounce multivariate to prove I’m just a man of the people.
Go have a listen!
Hey guys, welcome to the Bite Me podcast. Today, I'm going to be talking about red meat, depending on which end of the spectrum you've been listening, to red meat is either going to kill us immediately, or is the most nutritious thing in the world and should be making up a hundred percent of our diet. As is often the case with this sort of stuff, the truth lies somewhere in between. I want to start with a quick disclaimer, I eat meat. I eat red meat. I have recently reduced the amount of beef that I eat almost entirely just due to environmental things, but I've done my very best to make sure that today's podcast is an unbiased look at the current evidence and none of my own personal opinion, which is kind of always what I try and do anyway has influenced it. Look, the first thing is this stuff is difficult. Nutrition science as a whole is very, very hard. We can't really run a four week trial where one group does one thing and the other group does another thing because that's not really how this stuff works. A lot of the nutritional interventions that we are investigating, a lot of the results don't happen for decades. They don't happen to people's sixties, seventies, eighties, and it's not really realistic to run a trial that goes for that long. That means we have to rely a lot more on observational or epidemiology style studies, which essentially is where we collect data from people going about their daily life. Unfortunately, this opens up the potential for many, many, many other factors to influence the outcome, okay? Can we specifically say that that one factor, for example, red meat intake, is the thing that caused that outcome? Now that usually causes the phrase, "Correlation does not equal causation to get thrown around," which essentially means just because it looks like these two things are related, It doesn't mean that that is the entire story. And to be honest, I think we hide behind this phrase a lot. I know I certainly used to, but just because correlation does not equal causation doesn't mean that we have to ignore all of the evidence that is there. So we might just have to dig a little bit deeper and try a little bit harder. For reference, at the moment as I go through this podcast when I talk about high red meat intakes, I'm referring to in intakes of over 130 grams per day and averaged across your week. And for a low intake is under 100 grams a day averaged across the week. There are things that support the reduction of red meat intake. There are a number of mechanistic studies which show some evidence as to why we should be reducing it. Things like heterocyclic amines are formed when red meat hits high temperatures, things like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are found in smoke, which if you're cooking on a barbecue or something like that will stick to the red meat and, n-nitroso compounds are found thanks to the type of iron that's in meat, and also found in process meats due to the way that they are processed and cured. A lot of those or all of those compounds I just mentioned do have links with carcinogenesis, or in other words, they're carcinogenic, okay? They can promote the growth of cancer. Now notice I said, "can." This isn't a guarantee. Unfortunately, to some extent, cancer is a bit of a luck of the draw situation, but there is evidence suggesting that these things might increase our risk of getting that cancer. Now, what often pops up here is when people talk about the healthy user bias. So we say things like, "Yeah, people who eat lots of red meat and eat lots of those compounds and get cancer, they also tend to smoke more and they drink more and they do less exercise." And whilst this is true, the thing is if we've got large studies, which we do, we can do something called multivariate. I think I pronounce that wrong. Multivariate statistical analysis, which essentially takes those particular factors out of the equation. So it takes the fact that someone smokes out of the equation and then we can run the statistical analysis again and see if that effect is still there. And the thing is, removing those other unhealthy behaviors still kind of indicates that a high red meat intake, over 130 grams per day across your week, does increase your risk of certain cancers. Now it is not a massive increase, but it is still an increase. The other area that we need to talk about when it comes to red meat in particular is its saturated fat content. A lot of red meat is quite high in saturated fat. And the reality is a diet high in saturated fat very much increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. There are lots of people out there saying otherwise. That's really good. I'm glad people are saying that because it gives me a good indication of who I should ignore and not follow. Anyone saying that high saturated fat intakes is not a problem is someone you should not be listening to because the evidence and the science on that front is very, very clear. The goal for your saturated fat intake should be less than around 20 grams per day. And to put that in context, a 250 gram T-bone steak contains around 10 grams. Okay. And we also find it in lots of other animal products and coconut products. Those are sort of the major two plus, sorry, lots of processed foods, baked goods, confectionary items are also generally high in saturated fat. The other thing to remember about red meat is it can be quite nutritious on the other end of the spectrum, okay? Red meat is an incredibly high quality source of protein and it's a very, very good source iron, zinc and B12. Yes, you can find all of these micronutrients and vitamins and minerals in other sources, but the form that they are in. So the form in particular that iron is in in red meat is a form, a sort of a type of iron that your body can absorb really, really well, as opposed to the iron that we find in non-animal products. It's in a form that your body absorbs quite poorly, okay? There are absolutely strategies we can use to change that. But if you are looking for a massive hit of iron, it's pretty hard to go past red meat. So I am not suggesting that red meat is trash and we should completely cut it from our diets. I just think, like most things, there are unfortunately both sides of the coin that we need to be listening to. So if we're taking all of these things into account, how I would boil that down into my recommendations, and my recommendations are echoed well, rather the other way around, my recommendations echo a lot of the recommendations from various cancer councils around the world. You want to be averaging kind of under 500 to 700 grams of red meat a day. It appears that if we're keeping our red meat intake below that level, we are making sure that we're not increasing our risk of those things that I discussed before. So it looks like the increased risk of certain cancers and heart disease is not a factor if we're keeping our red meat intake below that level. If you are eating it very regularly, then you could also look at the types of cooking methods you're using. So looking at ones that don't char it or introduce it to smoke because of those heterocyclic amines in the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that I said before, because from the high heat and the smoke. So instead, if you're looking at oven or stewing, something like that is going to reduce the impact of those things. Make sure you're still eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, fruits and vegetables have fiber, which has a very good protective effect on particularly bowel cancer and heart disease. So it doesn't look like it completely negates either end, but it does provide a protective benefit. And those things are good to eat, eat them, right. If you are occasionally having a big, giant grilled steak, that's totally fine, okay? Remember, we're looking at weekly averages, we're looking at behavior over time. The odd little giant barbecue T-bone is not going to massively affect your health, unlike lots and lots of other decisions that we make each and every day. So, taking all of those things into account, it's really important to remember that you can be an incredibly healthy vegan. You can be an incredibly healthy vegetarian, and you can be an incredibly healthy omnivore. Including red meat in a diet does not immediately make that diet less healthy, okay? It's the way that it's, included the amounts that it's included and what the rest of that diet also looks like that are going to have the biggest impact on your health. So hopefully I didn't confuse you further. Hopefully I instead provided both ends of the spectrum. Okay. Both sides of the argument because they are both valid and as with most things in nutrition, I think if we can find ourselves somewhere in the middle, the middle is boring, but the middle is kind of where all the good stuff happens. So that's it for me for this week. I hope you found it valuable. If you did, please, please, please share it around. I've been blown away by the amount of downloads that I've received already. So thank you so much for that guys. If you liked this episode or the others, take a picture, chuck it up on your Instagram stories, tag me so I can say thank you. Rate, review, share, all the other social media things. I would be eternally grateful and I will chat to you next week.