Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
For Most People, Eating At Least Some Meat Is Likely Beneficial
There’s a lot of misinformation around the nutritional value of meat and whether you can eat meat in a healthy diet.
In truth, eating (red) meat has a very low association with increases in risk for certain diseases based on observational research, which isn’t as rigorous and controlled as randomized clinical trials.
Meat, especially beef, contains nutrients that are missing or only poorly available in plant foods, such as vitamin B12 and the amino acid leucine.
Eating organ meats may also increase the nutrient value and balance of meat in a person’s diet, as opposed to only consuming muscle meats.
The meat vs. plants debate distracts from a bigger issue for dietary health, which is whole foods vs. processed foods.
Eating meat isn’t as terrible for the environment as we’ve been led to believe either.
Eating meat is a personal dietary choice, and you may change your meat consumption throughout your life.
If you’ve paid any attention to diet trends over the last 20 years, eating meat still remains one of the most controversial choices you can make in terms of your diet. And it’s hard to know what the “right” decision is: avoiding meat and animal products completely (a vegan diet), only eating meat and animal products (a carnivore diet), or where most people stand, somewhere in the middle.
Today I want to answer the question “is meat good for you” by pulling information from my conversations with experts, my clinical experience counseling patients on their diet, and of course, taking a critical look at the research available to us on the nutritional value and environmental impact of meat.
I invite you to keep an open mind and stay curious about this topic as we dive in; I was certainly surprised to learn some of this information too!
How Meat Got its Bad Reputation
It’s pretty fair to say that meat has been (unjustly) accused of causing poor health outcomes from cardiovascular disease to cancer. How did meat get this bad reputation? There seem to be two key points that have unfairly put meat in the “bad for you” category:
Observational research on meat intake that corresponds with very low increases in risk for certain diseases that doesn’t account for other negative health and lifestyle factors (smoking, sedentary behavior, alcohol consumption, etc.) that may also be contributing to the increased risk for disease
Lumping unprocessed, usually red meat together with processed meat, even though these two foods can be very different nutritionally
Let’s take a look at one of these observational studies on meat consumption and disease risk.
A meta-analysis looked at 61 observational studies with more than 4 million participants to determine the association between a diet containing red (unprocessed) and processed meat and all-cause mortality, cardiometabolic outcomes, quality of life, and dietary satisfaction in adults .
Reducing unprocessed red meat consumption by 3 servings per week was associated with very small, uncertain reductions in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (10%) or having a stroke (6%), heart attack (7%), or type 2 diabetes (10%).
Reducing processed meat intake by 3 servings per week was associated with very small, uncertain reductions in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (10%) or having a stroke (6%), heart attack (6%), or type 2 diabetes (22%).
In summary, the evidence shows very small, uncertain associations between eating less unprocessed and processed meat and reducing the risk of serious cardiometabolic health outcomes. Unfortunately, these are the uncertain conclusions that were picked up and spread in the media and before anyone knew it, they were accepted as fact.
The key here is that observational research can only draw associations, which are useful for identifying that there might be a cause-and-effect relationship between two things, and therefore they should be studied further in randomized controlled trials, which better account for other potential variables that may impact the outcome of the research.
Unlike RCTs, observational studies cannot tell us whether meat is a likely cause of the issues it’s associated with, even if the correlations between meat and various conditions are large, which still isn’t the case here. Observational studies can also be tempting if they assess a large number of participants, since we automatically associate a larger sample size with better data. But again, a large sample size still doesn’t account for other variables at play in the outcome and actually can make the data even more unreliable.
In contrast, let’s now go to a meta-analysis of multiple randomized controlled trials on the effect of meat consumption on cardiometabolic disease and cancer in adults.
A meta-analysis analyzed 12 RCTs, one of which included 48,835 women, to assess the effect of lower and higher red meat consumption on the incidence of cardiometabolic outcomes and cancer in adults.
Eating less red meat appeared to have little or no effect on death from any cause (1% reduction), cardiovascular disease (2% reduction), or cancer (5% reduction).
Eating less red meat also appeared to have little or no effect on developing colorectal (4% increase) or breast cancer (3% reduction).
In conclusion, diets that are low in red meat may have little or no effect on major outcomes related to cardiometabolic health, cancer, or any cause .
A 2023 meta-analysis evaluated 21 RCTs to compare the effects of diets with red meat (beef, pork, lamb, etc.) versus diets with low or no red meat on blood sugar balance in adults .
Red meat consumption did NOT worsen risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes, including:
In fact, eating more red meat led to lower post-meal blood sugar .
If we change the focus from observational studies to randomized controlled trials that account for other variables that could affect the research outcome, the association between meat and certain diseases becomes tenuous at best, and in some cases, seems to have no correlation at all.
There don’t actually seem to be any health risks or downsides associated with eating meat that are accurately supported by research .
Many of the observational associations between eating meat and worse health outcomes are likely due to other dietary and lifestyle habits.
For example, those who eat more red meat may be more likely to also be smokers, less physically active, and more overweight (habits and factors that are known to lead to worse health outcomes). It could also be that because of all of the media attention and fear around red meat, those who are more health-conscious may also be choosing to avoid red meat (along with exercising more, not smoking, etc.) Either way, we can’t know for sure what other factors are at play in observational research.
These gaps in the research findings are why we need to be careful to avoid dogma and extreme thinking when it comes to health decisions, including whether or not to eat meat.
Nutritional Value of Meat and Animal-Based Foods
Alright, now that we’ve debunked the dominant narrative presented in the research around meat and its health effects, let’s take a closer look at the true nutritional value of meat.
We know that meat is one of the best sources of bioavailable protein concentrated in high amounts with a relatively low amount of total calories. This is a good thing for most people, who tend to eat the opposite: high-calorie foods with a low amount of protein, or low-calorie and low-protein foods.
Plant protein sources can be good too, but you generally need a lot more of a plant protein to achieve the same amount of protein as a single serving of meat (and you’ll likely be full before you can reach that protein goal).
Knowing that most people are undereating the amount of protein they need for healthy muscle and healthy aging, incorporating more meat into one’s diet could be an efficient way to increase protein intake and reap all of the associated health benefits.
Meat and animal foods also tend to be high in key nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, the B vitamins, minerals like phosphorus, zinc, selenium, and iron, and of course, amino acids that make proteins.
We can also find essential nutrients in meat and animal foods that we can’t find anywhere else or only as poor sources in plant foods, such as the amino acid leucine, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. On this basis alone, it would seem wise to include at least some meat in most diets.
Except in cases of allergy or food sensitivity, meat and animal foods tend to also be very bioavailable and easier to break down for the digestive system. This is why the carnivore diet may be applicable for some as a short-term strategy to heal the gut (but only if other, more diverse diets have not yielded results), and then a wider variety of foods can be reintroduced to the diet later after the gut has healed.
Organ Meats and Nose-to-Tail Nutrition
One thing we can perhaps say more definitively is that most people are undereating organ meats and other “secondary” parts of an animal that have significant nutritional value . Other animal foods that might fill in common missing nutritional gaps include eggs, dairy, shellfish, and small fish (such as anchovies).
Eating only muscle meats may contribute to an unbalanced nutritional profile, making diets heavy in these cuts less healthy than they might be if they focused on nose-to-tail nutrition. Eating nose to tail and excluding processed foods also aligns with a more ancestral eating pattern that seems to be compatible with brain health, longevity, and healthy aging.
Grass-Fed vs. Conventionally-Raised Meats
During my conversation with Diana Rodgers about meat and its place in our ecosystem, we discussed the surprising fact that there actually isn’t much nutritional difference between grass-fed and conventionally-raised meat. So if you have to choose between the two for cost reasons, don’t feel bad if you can’t go with the grass-fed option every time.
Undoubtedly, there is an ethical and environmental difference between the two of these options in terms of feedlots and what natural environment the animal has access to over its lifetime, so we can still strive for grass-fed and regeneratively raised meat when possible. But nutritionally, at least, there isn’t a huge difference.
Redirecting the Conversation Around a Healthy Diet: Processed vs. Whole Foods
At this point we can conclude that eating meat at least isn’t actively bad for you, and it may actually be beneficial in terms of macro and micronutrients, depending on what you’re eating and your food tolerances. But is the meat vs. plants debate even a conversation we should be having?
The dogma around plant-based vs. animal-based diets is obscuring another, greater issue when it comes to what constitutes a healthy diet: eating processed vs. unprocessed, aka whole foods.
In both my own life and my clinical practice, what I’ve really found the most important when it comes to diet is:
Choosing mainly whole and unprocessed foods (animal and plant foods)
Balance in your food choices, i.e. having a protein, fat, and carb with all of your meals, and allowing yourself the occasional indulgence when circumstances call for it
The balance rule ensures that you never feel you’re eating a diet that’s too restrictive, or that you can never enjoy a meal out with friends, avoiding the social aspect of eating. Eating mostly whole foods, including animal and plant foods, ensures that you’re getting most of your nutrients from natural sources that are in line with what your body was designed to process and digest.
This “middle of the road” perspective is what works well for me and most of my patients, though certain people may need to utilize a more restrictive, therapeutic diet for a short period of time. But ultimately, the goal is to get you to enjoy as wide a variety of foods as possible in a healthy, sustainable way.
Another important topic I want to bring up is that you may incorporate more animal foods or more plant foods into your diet based on your health goals at a given time. This came up recently in my conversation with Dr. Paul Saladino around the carnivore diet and its utility in helping individuals heal from gut issues and autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Saladino recommends a 30–60 day trial of the carnivore diet to those looking to make improvements in their immune function. If the diet works for them, most people will start seeing some improvement in 30 days, and a more significant difference can be seen within 60 days.
I have also experimented with the carnivore diet for some of my patients, and it can be a turning point for some people. In our clinic, we’ve seen this be effective for about 60–70% of the patients who try it. We don’t recommend it to everyone and definitely not right away, but if you have a very, very sensitive system and have tried more moderate diets and other therapies, this can be worth a try as sort of the “ultimate” elimination diet.
But then again, a vegetarian diet for the right person at the right time might also make a significant positive difference in their health. It truly is individual to the person and the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat only that way for the rest of your life. Remember that you can always reevaluate your diet if some part of it isn’t working for you or your health goals, whether that means adding in more meat and animal foods and cutting back on some plants or vice versa.
Beyond health benefits, many people also avoid meat for environmental reasons. And while these concerns are certainly valid, a number of the concerns around the environmental impact of meat also appear to be based on faulty information.
The media tends to target ruminant animals, like cows, sheep, and goats, the most for their potential impact on global warming because the fermentation of the food they eat contributes to greenhouse gases. However, the relationship between ruminants and greenhouse gases is not that simple.
Transportation, industry, and power combined are responsible for about 80% of all greenhouse gases in the U.S. Agriculture (including plants and animals) produces about 9% of greenhouse gases in the US. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for about 3.9%, which means plant agriculture produces about 5.1%. If we scale out to the world as a whole, U.S. animal-sourced foods contribute about 0.5%of the world’s total greenhouse gas .
So first of all, the large majority of greenhouse gases are produced by fossil fuel extraction, not agriculture. Secondly, it’s not as though plant agriculture doesn’t contribute any greenhouse gas emissions and animal agriculture does, in fact, plant agriculture contributes slightly more emissions than animal agriculture. Thirdly, animal (and plant) emissions are part of a natural carbon cycle that is different from CO2 made by burning fossil fuels, which puts new CO2 into the atmosphere way faster than the earth’s plants, soils, and oceans can reabsorb it .
So at the very least, we can poke a lot of holes in this argument for avoiding meat consumption based on the environmental impact of animal agriculture. There’s a lot to investigate and learn about this topic and the false narrative around the impact of meat on the environment — this is just scratching the surface. I encourage you to do your own research and education on this topic. I recommend Diana Rodgers’ book and documentary Sacred Cow as a good starting point to learn more.
Eating Meat is a Personal Dietary Choice
Ultimately, whether you eat meat and how much you eat is a personal choice. Some people feel better and/or prefer to eat more meat, others less. Neither option is inherently healthy or unhealthy. However, if you’re worried about eating meat based on the potential negative health effects or negative environmental effects, I want to reassure you that the reality of either is much lower than the current popular narrative would acknowledge.
Instead of this polarizing divide over eating meat or not eating meat completely, I think the main conversation we should be having around the impact of including meat in our diets is:
Whether that meat is processed or unprocessed and the health effects of each
The nutritional value of meat, especially from a protein perspective
Your personal response to eating meat and what feels best for your body
When we examine the value of including meat in our diets based on these factors, we can make a much more informed, level decision not based on dogma or extreme positions.
If you want to work individually with a health coach or practitioner on finding the best diet for you, reach out to us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health and we’ll be happy to help.
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Zeraatkar D, Johnston BC, Bartoszko J, Cheung K, Bala MM, Valli C, et al. Effect of lower versus higher red meat intake on cardiometabolic and cancer outcomes: A systematic review of randomized trials. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Nov 19;171(10):721–31. DOI: 10.7326/M19-0622. PMID: 31569236.
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