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Health Benefits of Red Meat: Separating Fact From Fiction

Adding Red Meat To A Well-Balanced Diet May Promote Health

Key Takeaways:

  • Research-backed health benefits of red meat include weight loss, improved cardiometabolic health, improved muscle mass and strength, and lower inflammation.
  • Red meat provides protein, essential fatty acids, and numerous vitamins and minerals that many Americans are lacking in their diet
  • Red meat has been unfairly vilified, but high-quality studies have found no adverse health effects.
  • Many of the research studies claiming red meat is harmful are observational studies, which can’t prove cause and effect – and which usually don’t account for other diet and lifestyle factors.
  • These studies also tend to lump red meat in with processed meat.
  • Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference when it comes to nutrition or environmental impact between grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
  • Animal agriculture is a much smaller part of our carbon footprint than is reported in the media, and it’s even smaller than plant agriculture.

Red meat has been vilified for years as being unhealthy, artery-clogging, and cancer-promoting. 

After reviewing the preponderance of the evidence regarding red meat, I feel strongly that it’s been unjustly maligned. There don’t seem to be any health risks or downsides to consuming red meat that are supported by quality research. On the contrary, the health benefits of red meat are many and are possibly related to the essential nutrients like protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins that red meat contains [1]. Eating red meat, as part of a varied, healthy diet of whole, unprocessed foods, can promote a healthy weight, as well as improve your cardiometabolic and musculoskeletal health.

If you avoid red meat and other meat products based on a personal preference, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I’m not suggesting you need to start eating red meat. But I do feel our current food environment is heading down the path of taking away food choice based on erroneous misinformation. So in this article, I’ll provide you with the health benefits of red meat and get into why it’s important to evaluate nutrition research around red meat with a critical eye. Let’s dig in.

Health Benefits of Red Meat

Red meat (generally beef, pork, lamb, and game) consumption has been an important part of the human diet for millions of years, and may be one contributor to our complex brain development [2]. This type of meat provides essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, highly absorbable iron (heme iron), and is a high-quality source of protein (meaning it contains all the essential amino acids). But red meat also provides selenium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and even small amounts of vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern for many [2, 3].

Here’s a chart summarizing the research on the health benefits of red meat:

Type of Study Study Design Results
Meta-analysis of 66 randomized controlled trials (RCT) [4] 10 food groups ranked for their effects on potential disease markers
  • Red meat was ranked among the most beneficial foods for reducing triglyceride levels
Meta-analysis of 36 RCTs [5] Investigating red meat on the risk factors for cardiovascular disease
  • Red meat was better than a fish-based diet at reducing LDL cholesterol
  • Red meat was better than a carbohydrate-based diet at reducing triglycerides
Meta-analysis of 7 RCTs [6] Comparing the effects of beef protein, whey protein, or no protein on body composition and exercise performance
  • Beef protein was better than no protein for increasing total daily protein intake, lean body mass, and lower body strength
RCT [7] Effects of a diet enriched with lean red meat combined with resistance training on health-related quality of life in elderly women
  • Improved overall health-related quality of life due to better perceived physical functioning
RCT [8] Effects of resistance training plus a diet enriched with protein from lean red meat on lean muscle mass, muscle size, strength and function, inflammatory markers, blood pressure, and cholesterol in elderly women
  • Lean red meat enhanced the effects of resistance training on lean muscle mass and strength, and reduced inflammation in elderly women

To sum this up, when compared to other food groups, red meat seems to be more helpful for:

  • Reducing triglycerides
  • Reducing LDL and HDL cholesterol
  • Increasing overall protein intake
  • Improving lean body mass
  • Increasing strength

And when compared to not eating red meat, adding lean cuts of red meat in combination with resistance training is better for:

  • Improving gait speed
  • Quality of life
  • Improving muscle mass and strength
  • Lowering inflammation 

It’s worth noting that it’s hard to know whether the health benefits of red meat are related to greater overall protein intake or specific components of red meat that other dietary protein sources don’t have. 

Aside from the cardiometabolic and musculoskeletal health benefits of red meat, it may also help improve your weight.

While I’m not strictly in one diet camp, I often recommend the Paleo diet in the clinic. This diet includes whole, unprocessed foods, as well as lean red meat. While not studying red meat specifically, research on the Paleo diet has found it to be more effective for weight loss when compared to other diets [9, 10, 11], and a systematic review and meta-analysis of 8 RCTs found the Paleo diet can reduce body weight, waist size, body mass index, and body fat percentage – all factors that improve metabolic health [12]. 

Additional research has found the Paleo diet:

  • Is better than other diets at reducing total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides while improving HDL [9, 13].
  • Is significantly better than control diets at reducing blood pressure [9, 13].
  • Is slightly better for reducing blood sugar compared to other diets [9].
  • Improves insulin levels and reduces insulin resistance [13].
  • Reduces the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a sign of inflammation some dietary patterns can raise [12, 13, 14].

How Much Red Meat is Right For You?

Like most things related to diet, lifestyle, and health, balance is key– and everyone is a little bit different. 

There isn’t necessarily an ideal number of red meat servings that everyone should be getting per week. It all depends on what feels right to you. The biggest thing to keep in mind is to try to balance your meat intake with your intake of other healthy whole foods. 

And while I generally advocate for balance and as much variety as possible, some people find they feel better, at least temporarily, on a carnivore diet (consuming only animal products with the elimination of carbs).  

In our clinic, we’ve seen the carnivore diet (if transitioned properly) actually be really helpful for about 60–70% of the patients who try it. I certainly don’t recommend this to everyone, and it’s definitely not a first option. But for patients who have very sensitive digestive systems who’ve tried other more moderate diet approaches but still struggle with symptoms, this can be worth a try as sort of the “ultimate ” elimination diet.

It’s also worth mentioning that for some people, limiting or even eliminating meat for a period of time improves their symptoms, and that’s okay too. The goal is always to listen to your body and to find balance without forcing yourself into a specific meal plan that may not work for you.

Considering all of this information, you can see that red meat does have a variety of health benefits. So, you may be wondering why it’s been vilified in the media, and why some healthcare practitioners recommend avoiding red meat.  Let’s dig into where this comes from.

Why Is Red Meat Thought To Be Unhealthy?

It’s fair to say red meat has been unfairly vilified. We’ve heard from the media, and even some healthcare practitioners, that eating red meat increases your risk of heart disease, clogs your arteries, causes cancer, and more. But when you critically evaluate the research, these claims are either false or overblown. In order to understand why red meat has gotten such a bad rap, you need to have an understanding of how nutrition research is carried out, so let’s break this down.

Nutrition Research 101

I say this often on the podcast, but it bears repeating here. The best type of research study for understanding how an intervention affects health is a randomized controlled trial. This is really tricky in nutrition for several reasons, including because no researcher can ethically require test subjects to eat one of only two or three foods for any meaningful length of time in order to get a cause-and-effect result. So, what we’re often left with in nutrition research are observational studies, and observational studies are difficult to do well. 

When it comes to observational studies in nutritional research, limiting factors include [15, 16]:

  • Selective reporting (omitting data that doesn’t seem significant)
  • Inadequate hypotheses (proposed explanation)
  • Rarely accurate self-reported food diaries
  • Poor control of confounding variables (unmeasured variables that can influence results)

Observational research can only draw associations (correlational evidence), they cannot tell us whether there’s definitely a cause and effect relationship between two things.  Rather, observational studies are useful for identifying that there might be a relationship that needs to be investigated further with a randomized controlled trial (RCT). Let’s take a look at an example of this in action:

  • Observational research (remember, no cause and effect can be confirmed) suggesting that eating red meat increases the risk of chronic disease has only found small associations between meat intake and the risk of disease (about 6–10%) [17, 18, 19].
  • Compare that to observational research that showed men who smoked more than 30 cigarettes per day to have a 10,250% higher risk of developing squamous cell cancer (Pesch et al. 2012).

Observational studies suggest red meat may lead to a slightly increased risk of chronic disease.  This is more than likely related to other confounding variables related to health and lifestyle factors (smoking, lack of exercise, and obesity) in these studies. If we stop there and just look at observational data, which is what we mostly have and what is mostly reported in the media, we’d be misled about red meat and disease risk. In order to get the truth about this topic, we need to review high-quality research about red meat, and this is where the meta-analysis comes in.

Meta-analyses are research studies that combine the results of RCTs, which makes them better designed to find cause and effect. These types of studies into red meat have actually found very different results when compared to the observational research:

  • A 2019 meta-analysis of 12 RCTs found less red meat consumption appeared to have little or no effect on death from any cause, cardiovascular disease, or cancer (including colorectal cancer and breast cancer) [20].
  • A 2017 meta-analysis of 24 RCTs found one-half serving or more of red meat per day for 2–32 weeks had no effect on cholesterol, triglycerides, or blood pressure (which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease) [21].
  • A 2023 meta-analysis of 21 RCTs found red meat did not increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and actually led to lower post-meal blood sugar levels [22].

Some of the confusion about red meat may come from research studies that clump red and processed meats together even though they’re different. But even then, observational research has found diets that contain less processed (having preservatives) and unprocessed red meats are associated with a very slight reduction in the risk of death from all causes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and heart attack [19]. This is clinically insignificant, especially when compared to the research-backed health benefits of eating red meat. But are there any health risks associated with eating red meat?

Are There Any Health Risks From Consuming Red Meat?

In 2019, the Lancet (a prestigious scientific journal) published the “Global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019.” This study set the tolerable limit of red meat consumption to zero, if you can believe that. 

Since publication, many researchers have shared their concerns about this study as it’s mostly based on observational research, and the study authors failed to follow standard reporting procedures for systematic reviews. This study has been used to make important decisions about nutrition policy, despite obvious flaws and the fact that it has ignored the high-quality data regarding the health benefits of red meat [23, 24, 25]. 

There actually don’t seem to be any quality research studies showing the health risks of consuming red meat. A 14-member panel representing 7 countries evaluated the best current evidence on meat intake and its health effects overall. They found too little evidence to recommend removing or reducing dietary red meat or processed meat (like hotdogs and bacon). They suggested that adults can continue with their desired amount of red meat consumption without fear of negative health outcomes [26]. So, why does the media continue to suggest we need to avoid red meat?

Many opponents of red meat have cherry-picked their data to support claims that red meat is harmful for both human health and the environment. And many of the studies that are cited are flawed and come with considerable confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out information that supports what you already believe).

In reality, many of the associations between red meat and worse health outcomes are likely due to other dietary and lifestyle factors. For example, a meta-analysis of observational studies found people who eat more red meat may also be more likely to smoke, be less physically active, and be more overweight – all habits and factors that are known to lead to worse health outcomes [27]. In contrast, people who eat more fruits and vegetables (like legumes) are more likely to have higher education, avoid smoking, and be more physically active – all factors known to improve health outcomes [27].

The bottom line is, you can’t say that eating red meat or not eating red meat makes a person healthy or unhealthy. If you’ve not been eating meat in order to improve your health, you can feel better about reintroducing this valuable source of nutrients into your diet. Now let’s tackle the issue of grass v/s grain-fed.

Is Grass-Fed Meat Better Than Grain-Fed?

There’s quite the debate about grass-fed v/s grain-fed beef. Many health advocates say grass-fed is the superior option healthwise, as well as humane-wise. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference when it comes to grass-fed v/s grain-fed beef that translates into different health outcomes.

The main researched differences between grass- and grain-fed meat are their fatty acid profiles [28, 29, 30]:

  • Grass-fed beef tends to have fatty acid profiles, like less saturated fat, more essential and omega-3 fatty acids, that are associated with lower risks of chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. 
  • Grain-fed beef tends to have more heart-healthy monounsaturated fat content than grass-fed beef, which is also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease 

And if you’re concerned about the living conditions of cows who are grain-fed or their environmental footprint, Diana Rodgers shared on the podcast that all cattle live the majority of their lives grazing on pasture, much of which is unusable for plant agriculture. Grain-fed cattle are sent to feedlots for the last 3 months of their lives to be grain-finished. While factory cattle farms do use a lot more water than grass-fed systems, each type of farming has different trade-offs, and no system has an absolute lower carbon footprint [31].

Now let’s shift over to the environmental aspects of red meat. Here are some facts about the effects of red meat on the health of the planet.

Is Red Meat Bad for the Environment?

If you’re avoiding red meat for environmental reasons, it seems many of the reported “facts” about the environmental impact of red meat on the planet have also been based on faulty information. As Diana Rodgers (a dietitian, author, and filmmaker) explained on the podcast, vegetarian diets (forgoing meat and red meat) seem to have become synonymous with supporting environmental conservation, but the data just don’t confirm this. Let’s take a deeper dive into what we know.

One 2020 literature review cited much research showing that humans require animal-sourced foods to meet micronutrient requirements but explained that many people believe these types of foods need to be limited or even eliminated. Ruminant animals like cows, sheep, and goats are often the target due to the fermentation of the food they eat, which can contribute to greenhouse gases, but it’s just not that simple [32]. Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Greenhouse gases from human activities are the main driver of climate change, but the major contributors to this are transportation, industry, and power, which together are responsible for about 80% of all greenhouse gases in the U.S. [32]
  2. Animal agriculture is responsible for only 3.9% with plant agriculture producing about 5.1% [32]. This means plants contribute to greenhouse gas emissions more than animals do.  
  3. U.S. animal-sourced foods contribute about 0.5% of the world’s greenhouse gases and U.S. plant-based foods contribute about 0.6% [32]. Thanks to more efficient livestock reproduction, better veterinary care, more efficient use of feed, and better diets, the U.S. has the lowest carbon footprint per unit of animal-sourced food production in the entire world [32]. 
  4. When it comes to methane, the natural biogenic carbon cycle from ruminant animals is different from the CO2 emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels, which put more CO2 into the air than the world’s plants, oceans, and soils can reabsorb. In the U.S. ruminant animal population stays relatively stable, so there’s no new methane added to the atmosphere to cause additional global warming [32].
  5. 70% of all the world’s agricultural land is not suitable for growing crops. However, ruminant animals can actually graze this land, which converts low-quality plant material into nutrient-dense food for humans [32]. Eliminating ruminant animals would render this land useless.

An additional consideration is the food waste that occurs in developed countries. The U.S. alone wastes up to 40% of the food it produces, mostly after it goes to the market. When we waste food, the greenhouse gasses produced to make it are basically for nothing. Not to mention, the packaging, shipping, and refrigeration costs that are incurred [33].

Overall, animal agriculture is a much smaller part of our carbon footprint than many of us believed, and it’s even smaller than plant agriculture. The truth is, neither plant, nor animal agriculture are contributing significantly to the nation’s carbon footprint. So getting rid of meat isn’t going to make much of an impact on the environment, but what it will do is place us in an even more perilous situation as it relates to nutrient insufficiency and deficiency [2, 32].

Enjoy Red Meat As Part of A Whole-Foods Diet

Red meat has been unfairly maligned as a significant contributor to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and environmental destruction. Most of the research studies pointing to the deleterious health effects of red meat are observational studies, which can’t actually prove a cause-and-effect relationship. On the contrary, high-quality studies have found numerous health benefits of red meat, including weight loss, better cardiometabolic health, improved muscle mass and strength, and lower inflammation. There don’t actually seem to be any health risks or downsides associated with eating red meat that are supported by research. 

In reality, there are very few whole, unprocessed foods that are universally “good” or “bad” for everyone at all times. But unfortunately, observational studies (since that’s a lot of what we have in the nutrition space) are often reported incorrectly by the media, leaving us with a bad taste in our mouth for red meat. The truth of the matter is red meat contains a variety of nutrients that Americans are insufficient in, like high-quality protein, essential fatty acids, iron, and vitamin B12 (just to name a few).  

When it comes to the environment, humans are by far the greatest contributors to climate change. Animal-sourced foods contribute very little to the carbon footprint and even less than plant agriculture. And meat is an important source of nutrients derived from the 70% of agricultural land we can’t actually use to grow anything else. 

Ultimately, whether you eat red meat, and how much you consume is a personal choice. But don’t let faulty research and overblown environmental claims keep you from avoiding this nutrient-dense food. If you’d like more information about how to incorporate red meat into your lifestyle, contact us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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