Over the last several decades, eating red meat has come under scrutiny from mainstream media outlets and medical organizations alike. Now, many people think it is unhealthy to eat red meat; many people make it a goal to limit their red meat consumption citing "health reasons." Today, let us challenge some of these popular notions, which are more akin to "old wive's tales" rather than undisputed scientific evidence.
"Red meat will raise my cholesterol"
First, the US Dietary Guidelines removed its decade long recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol in 2015, and even the American Heart Association in 2013 cited "insufficient evidence to determine whether lowering dietary cholesterol reduces LDL." We have likely oversimplified (and incorrectly) that if you eat more cholesterol, your blood cholesterol will go up. Even so, red meat contains almost equivalent amounts of cholesterol as "healthier" alternatives such as chicken or pork. Actually, lean ground beef has less cholesterol than equivalent servings of pork tenderloin or chicken with no skin.
"Red meat is inflammatory"
While maybe ten times less than wild caught King Salmon, grass-fed and finished beef has much more Omega-3 fatty acid than conventional beef and has an overall favorable Omega-3:Omega-6 ratio (which most agree is less inflammatory.) We should also take into account that many alternatives to beef are meats with worse Omega-3:Omega-6 ratios (chicken and pork) or plant foods such as legumes, nightshades, nuts and seeds that seem to be inflammatory on an individual and cases-by-case basis. This should be an individual preference, not a sweeping declaration.
"Red meat will give me bowel cancer"
This is one of the hottest topics stemming from a recommendation by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stating that red meat-- and even more so processed red meat-- were carcinogens. However, the research used to make this determination warrants discussion about a statistical concept--relative risk vs. absolute risk. In these studies, people who ate more red meat relative to people who did not had a higher percentage of colorectal cancer. But compared to the baseline risk of developing cancer across a lifespan in a particular country, the percent difference was much smaller. Not to mention that most of this research was epidemiological studies, which is rife with confounding variables, such as healthy user bias. I think the best we can say is that the "jury is still out" and just like everything else in medicine it comes down to individual risk vs. benefit analysis in line with a patient personal preference and belief system.
"Red meat is bad for the environment"
I cannot elaborate on the contribution of the commercial/industrial food system to our environment as well as Barbara Kingsolver does in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Robb Wolf and Diana Rogers have done amazing work at highlighting how cattle farming has the ability to help regenerate portions of our American grassland. Folks like Joel Salatin and even many of our local farmers can speak to the sustainable carbon cycling of regenerative agriculture practices.
Notice that nothing written above is telling you to eat meat. Beef, lamb, venison, bison are all foods I intentionally try to place in my diet. However, I am not telling you that you should. Meat, red meat, no meat--that is your choice. However, if you are restricting red meat because of any of the reasons cited above or choosing other meats (chicken, pork) because you feel guilty about eating beef for any of the reasons above, I hope this can provide you with some information to make an informed decision about your diet moving forward. Please ask your doctor if red meat is right for you.
Note: A lot of the nutritional content (cholesterol, omega-3) certainly does not exist in a vacuum and should be contextualized with other contents like saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats but that is certainly enough information for a post of its own in the future.
Note: I am making no claims or stakes about ethical or religious reasons why an individual would not eat red meat. SWVA DPC respects all creeds and codes; we are willing to engage in a healthcare discussion about how best to serve you.
Disclosure: I have no financial interests nor receive any funding from the beef industry (though I do have one of their bumper stickers on my car.)