“Dr. Hyman, I see so many conflicting reports about meat,” begins this week’s house call question. “Some say it can be part of a healthy diet. Others declare it is the root cause of disease – including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. I have friends who completely avoid it and other friends of mine who embrace meat as an everyday staple. What’s the truth about meat?”
I understand your confusion, especially with the conflicting, sometimes misleading information out there. Whether meat is good or bad depends on with whom you are talking. Paleo enthusiasts say meat is essential to longevity. Vegans will tell you to avoid it at all costs. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated processed meat and bacon are carcinogenic and red meat is most likely, as well.
There are very real concerns involving meat, including the ethical treatment of animals and their impact on the environment, as well as medical and health issues. For some, there are very real ethical concerns about eating meat. For example, if you are a Buddhist and believe that any creature could be your mother from your past life or in your next life, then we can fully support being a vegetarian.
From a health and wellness standpoint, we question if eating meat truly causes heart disease, cancer and leads to a shorter life. Or is eating meat the key to longevity, as it seemed to be for the Plains Indians who lived on buffalo and had the highest number of centenarians in history? On the other hand, we have the Seventh Day Adventists, who are vegetarians but are among the longest-lived people on the planet.
It’s not hard to see why the average person, or even doctor or nutritionist is confused. The whole carnivore-vegan debate misses the real point – the root of chronic disease and obesity: sugar and refined carbs.
Studies that take a pro- or anti-meat stance often miss the bigger picture. They overlook the fact that most meat eaters who participate in the studies that show harm from eating meat are also eating a boatload of sugar and refined carbs alongside a highly processed, inflammatory diet. They certainly aren’t eating small to moderate amounts of grass-fed or organic meat along with a pile of colorful fruits and veggies.
Admittedly, it would be almost impossible to perform an accurate study about meat. You would have to randomize people into a whole foods, low-glycemic, plant-rich diet with grass-fed or organic animal protein and compare them to those on a high-quality vegan diet. That study has never been done. Anyone have a $100 million? I have the team to do that study at Cleveland Clinic! Call me! We need to do THAT study.
Many of the studies demonizing meat use subjects who are smokers, drink too much, eat way too much sugar and processed foods, eat very little fruits and veggies, and do not exercise. And of course, they don’t take vitamins! So it’s no wonder that these meat eaters with bad habits and horrible diets are sicker and fatter!
What about featuring Paleo enthusiasts in these studies? These are pro-meat eaters who choose grass-fed meats. They shop at Whole Foods or health food stores. They don’t smoke, and they drink in moderation, if at all. They take vitamins, eat lots of fruits and veggies, and exercise regularly. And they have very little sugar and no refined carbs.
The same goes for whole food vegans (not the chips and soda vegans). They would be interesting subjects.
What if Meat Eaters Only Ate Health Food and Grass-Fed Meat?
The story is not as simple as meat is bad, veggies are good. The real question to ask is this: do grass-fed meat eaters, who also eat lots of healthy food, don’t smoke, exercise, and take vitamins have heart disease?
Thankfully, some researchers have asked this question. In one cohort study, scientists studied 11,000 people, 57 percent of whom were omnivores (meat eaters) and the other 43 percent were vegetarians. Both groups were health conscious.
Yet in this study, researchers found the overall death rates were cut in half for both health-conscious meat eaters and for vegetarians, as compared to the average person eating a western-style, processed food diet. The study concluded that for the vegetarians, there was no benefit found; and for the meat eaters, there was no increased risk for heart disease, cancer or death.
Another study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health titled the “AARP Diet and Health Study”, did find a correlation of meat, heart disease, cancer and death. They found that meat eaters, on a whole, were very unhealthy.
However, the meat eaters in the study smoked more. They weighed more. They consumed an average of 800 more calories a day. They exercised less. They ate more sugar. They drank more alcohol. They ate fewer fruits and vegetables but less fiber. And they took fewer vitamins. Are you surprised that they had more heart disease, cancer and higher rates of death?
Unfortunately, the only headline the media grabbed was some variation of “Meat Kills.”’
Does the Type of Meat You Eat Matter?
Another problem with most meat eater vs. non meat eater studies is that the type of meat consumed is industrially raised, factory farmed meat, known as confined animal feeding operations (or CAFOs). This industrial grain-fed meat is full of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, with more inflammatory omega-6 fats from corn and fewer anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. These population studies don’t include people who eat only grass-fed meat without hormones, pesticides or antibiotics.
What About Saturated Fat?
Another concern that is raised is that saturated fat in meat causes heart disease. Yet interestingly, the types of saturated fats that cause heart disease – stearic and palmitic acid – don’t come from meat. Your liver produces these two fatty acids when you eat sugar and carbs. In other words, your liver produces saturated fat from sugar and carbs that causes heart disease.
In one interventional trial, researchers showed even on a low-carb diet that is higher in saturated fats, blood levels of saturated fats remained lower because of the carb effect.
Simply put: In the absence of sugar and refined carbs and adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in your diet, saturated fat is really not a problem. Again, quality matters: The saturated fat in a fast food cheeseburger is completely different than what you get in coconut butter or a grass-fed steak.
These same limitations apply for studies that show meat causes diabetes and cancer: Most focused on generally unhealthy people eating a highly processed diet.
When you do randomized, control studies on a Paleolithic diet, the diet more like our Caveman ancestors ate, all the risk factors like heart disease and diabetes go down, not up.
For the record, a true Paleolithic-type diet contains good-quality, fresh meat, eggs, lots of fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds but no grains, dairy, beans, or processed food.
5 Rules If You Eat Meat
I hope you can see how eating meat can become healthy or unhealthy when you consider the many factors. If you opt to eat meat, follow these 5 rules to help you make the best choices.
- Choose grass-fed, pasture-raised organic meats. They’re more expensive but ideally you will eat less of the meat and more plant-based foods. Think of meat as a condiment, not a main dish. Fifty to seventy five percent of your plate should be vegetables!
- Avoid all processed meats. Stay away from processed meats such as deli meats. These are the meats that the World Health Organization points to that have been proven to cause disease, illness and cancer.
- Prepare your meat the right way. The way we prepare meats is the key. High-temperature cooking like grilling, frying, smoking or charring causes toxic byproducts. This also happens when you cook fish or chicken at high temperatures. All of this leads to the production of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which studies have shown, cause cancer in animals. Change your cooking methods to reduce your exposure of these toxic compounds. The same rule applies to grains and veggies. Cooking these foods at a too-high temperature can cause the same problems. Focus on lower-temperature, slow cooking for meat and veggies – such as baking, roasting, poaching, and stewing.
- Pile on the vegetables. Fill your plate with at least 75 percent phytonutrient-rich, colorful, non-starchy veggies and use meat as a condiment or as I like to say a “condi-meat.”
- Eat Pegan. Consider combining the best traits of Paleo and vegan, which I’ve called “Pegan.” You can learn more about that hybrid diet here.
At the end of the day, the message on meat is pretty simple. About half the studies show it’s a problem; half of them don’t. For those studies that show meat eaters, as a whole, aren’t a healthy bunch, the reason is most likely not the meat, but rather the smoking, sugar-filled, and sedentary lifestyle that creates heart disease and other problems.
A diet filled with lots of high-fiber fruits and veggies that rejects sugar and refined carbs, welcomes grass-fed meat as a health food, lowering inflammation and improving all of the cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.
Next week, we will dispel more dietary fat myths at our Fat Summit starting January 25th – February 1st. Come join us! We’re going to blow up the old myths about fat and meat, so you don’t want to miss it.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD