In the past few decades, meat has been blamed for all sorts of diseases.
But we’ve been eating meat for a long time and blaming new health problems on old foods doesn’t make much sense.
Here are 7 reasons why you don’t need to avoid meat (unless if you want to).
1. We Function Best Eating Both Plants and Animals
Our digestive systems are well equipped to make full use of the fats, proteins and nutrients found in animal foods.
The truth is that humans are omnivores. We function best eating both animals and plants (3).
Humans have much shorter digestive systems than herbivores and don’t have the specialized organs to digest cellulose, the main fiber in plants.
Humans also have canines, with big brains, opposing thumbs and the ability to make tools to hunt. Meat was one of the reasons humans were able to evolve such large, elaborate brains.
2. Meat Contains Nutrients
High quality, unprocessed meat is high in many nutrients.
A 100 gram portion (3.5 ounces) of raw ground beef contains vitamin B12, B3 (Niacin), B6, iron, zinc, selenium and various other vitamins and minerals (5).
But the nutrient composition of meat goes beyond all the macro- and micronutrients that we are all familiar with.
There is also a plethora of lesser-known nutrients in meat, that can not be gotten from plants:
- Creatine forms an energy reserve in the muscles and brain and is found only in animal foods (10, 11, 12, 13).
- Carnosine functions as an anti-oxidant and provides protection against many degenerative processes. Carnosine is only found in animal foods (14, 15, 16).
- DHA and EPA are the active forms of omega-3 in the human body and found primarily in animal foods. The body is inefficient at converting ALA (the plant form of omega-3) to the active forms (17, 18, 19).
3. Meat Doesn’t Raise Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease or Diabetes
There are many claims about meat being able to contribute to serious diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The main reason for these claims is that meat is high in saturated fat.
However, this myth has actually been debunked quite thoroughly in recent years.
In a massive study from Harvard that looked at data from 20 studies with a total of 1,218,380 individuals, they found no association between unprocessed red meat, cardiovascular disease and diabetes (22).
The EPIC study from Europe didn’t find any association either and this study included almost 450 thousand people (23).
However, both of these studies found a significantly increased risk for processed meat.
If you want to avoid chronic disease, then it makes sense to avoid processed meat as much as possible. But unprocessed meat seems to be fine.
4. Meat Contains High Quality Protein
Proteins are long strings of amino acids that are linked together and folded into complex shapes.
There are about 9 amino acids that we can not produce and must get from the diet.
In this regard, animal proteins contain all the amino acids that we need, while many plant proteins have a suboptimal amino acid profile (24).
Another thing that protein is important for is bone health. The studies show that consumption of protein is associated with increased bone density in old age and a lower risk of fractures (27, 28, 29, 30).
If you want to gain (or maintain) muscle, as well as prevent osteoporosis and fractures in old age, then the protein in meat can be beneficial.
5. There is Only a Very Weak Correlation With Cancer
However, all of these studies are so-called observational studies, which tend to be unreliable.
These studies often make the mistake of pooling together processed and unprocessed meats, which is unacceptable because the two have vastly different effects.
While it is true that processed meat strongly correlates with increased cancer risk, the same is not true for unprocessed red meat.
In so-called meta-analyses, which are studies that analyze the data from many studies at the same time, the link between red meat and cancer is found to be very weak (32).
These studies only find a very small increase in risk for men, and no increase for women (33).
That being said, it is possible that the way meat is cooked has an effect, because carcinogens can form when meat is cooked excessively (34).
For this reason, it is important to use gentler cooking methods and cut away all burnt or charred pieces.
6. There Are No Proven Health Benefits to Avoiding Meat
Despite the claims, there is no strong evidence that avoiding meat leads to health benefits.
True… there are observational studies showing that vegetarians have a lower risk of several diseases (35).
However, these results are largely explained by the fact that vegetarians are more health conscious overall and more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, etc.
When vegetarians are compared to meat eaters that are also health conscious, no difference is found (36).
It is also important to note that most vegetarian and vegan diets DO recommend that people eat unprocessed, whole foods and avoid added sugars, refined grains and trans fats.
If vegetarian diets really have health benefits, then this is probably a large part of the reason, not the fact that they eliminate unprocessed animal foods.
7. Anything Else?
Meat is no dietary devil.
However, there is no actual need for it in the diet either.
If you choose to avoid eating meat for ethical and/or environmental reasons, then you can still be perfectly healthy.
Just make sure to get the nutrients you need from other sources.