Meat the good and the bad

by Selin Ilgaz

We have heard so many facts about red meat consumption and livestock production from environmentalists, ecologists, experts… We know now that livestock production is far more dangerous for the environment than what we thought. With the methane gas emissions coming from livestock production, there is a high contribution to the alteration of the atmosphere [1]. In fact, the contribution of the greenhouse gas from all the livestock production in the world is actually more than transportation and comes right after energy production [1]. Animal production is also responsible for land degradation, air pollution, water pollution, water shortages, and loss of biodiversity [1]. Clearly, not only overproduction of meat is a serious threat to the environment, but it is also unethical considering the conditions in which the animals are being treated. With these issues coming to surface, cutting down meat consumption or vegetarianism is becoming increasingly hip. But are those the only reasons why we ought to be more sensitive about what we eat? We were continuously told and assured that in order to be healthier we needed to consume protein and dairy on a daily basis, and the more meat and poultry we eat the better it would be. However, things may not be as we think they are. We now actually have an unnatural demand of those products due to a heavy marketing, while in reality our bodies do not need meat and poultry to be healthy. As a matter of fact, we do not realise and are not told that, the overconsumption of meat along with a meagre consumption of plants is what leads to a poor health.

Red meat is part of the habitual diet for most people in developed countries, however, recently red meat has been linked to the development of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) [2]. Although it has been shown that the fat content and the fatty acid composition in the red meat are responsible for the development of the diseases, studies have not always been consistent. Studies linking CVD and red meat consumption have incomparable results due to the inconsistencies in their classification of processed meat, and due to the fact that they do not always control for age, BMI, smoking, alcohol, family history etc. [3]. In the research of effects of red meat on health, portion size has a great importance too. A study found that high amounts of meat consumption are strongly associated with acute coronary syndrome while low meat intake is not [4]. Although this study exhibits interesting findings, it does not look into the moderate consumers of red meat, which is the majority of the population. Another interesting study looking at mortality rates between vegetarians and non-vegetarians showed that there was a reduced mortality rate linked to CVD in vegetarians [5]. Findings in meat consumption studies are without surprises: the more meat you eat, the higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels you have and the more risk you carry for developing heart diseases due to the saturated fat and trans fatty acids contained in red meat, and this, especially if the meat is processed [3]. However, the association between red meat and CVD seems to disappear when there is a moderate consumption of meat [3].

Nevertheless, everything about meat is not “bad”, there is also a “good” side of it. Indeed, red meat is rich with unsaturated fatty acids which would help lowering total cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of CVD and improving hearth health [3]. It has also been reported that the unsaturated fatty acids have beneficial effects to the central nervous system [3]. Moreover, meat stays the major source of protein and protein has been found to promote weight loss and weight maintenance due to its satiety inducing effects [3]. In addition, the iron found in meat is essential in maintaining sufficient transport of oxygen in the blood, preventing from iron-deficiency anaemia which can have severe negative impact on health [3]. Last but not least, red meat is also richer than other dietary sources with zinc, B vitamins, selenium and retinol, contributing to an optimum health if consumed in a balanced diet [3].

Recent research is now looking at ways to substitute meat and its beneficial nutrients to be able to cut it altogether for environmental and health issues. However until then, it is now clear that any extreme positions on meat consumption will have high risks of having an impact on health: neither cutting meat for good without compensating with the necessary nutrient substitutes or persisting with a high intake of red meat is the solution. It looks like the current answer would be keeping a moderate consumption of non-processed meat, and although research can’t seem to have a consensus on the recommended amount to eat, it is between 70 and 90 grams per day in average.


[1] Cambra-Lopez, M., A. J. A. Aarnink, Y. Zhao, S. Calvet, and A. G. Torres. 2010. Airborne particular  matter from livestock production systems: A review of an air pollution problem. Environ. Pollut. 158:1–17.

[2] Cross, A. J., Leitzmann, M. F., Gail, M. H., Hollenbeck, A. R., Schatzkin, A., & Sinha, R. (2007). A  prospective study of red and processed meat intake in relation to cancer risk. PLos Medicine, 4(12), 1973.

[3] McAfee, A. J., McSorley, E. M., Cuskelly, G. J., Moss, B. W., Wallace, J. M., Bonham, M. P., & Fearon, A. M. (2010). Red meat consumption: an overview of the risks and benefits. Meat Sci, 84(1), 1-13.

[4] Kontogianni, M. D., Panagiotakos, D. B., Pitsavos, C., Chrysohoou, C., & Stefanadis, C. (2008). Relationship between meat intake and the development of acute coronary syndromes: The CARDIO2000 case–control study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62, 171–177.

[5] Key, T. J., Fraser, G. E., Thorogood, M., Appleby, P. N., Beral, V., Reeves, G., et al. (1998). Mortality in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: A collaborative analysis of 8300 deaths among 76,000 men and women in five prospective studies. Public Health Nutrition, 1, 33–41.


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