When our vegetarian ancestors started eating meat around two million years ago, it wasn’t just because animals taste great, it was pure necessity.
Climate change made many of the plants our ancestors relied on less available and meat bridged that gap.
From the discovery of fire at the latest, meat became a staple of the human diet.
But over the last few years eating meat has increasingly been associated with health risks like: heart disease, certain cancers, and an early death.
So how unhealthy is meat, really?
In this article we’ll only talk about meat.
Dairy products deserve an article of their own.
Biologically, we need to eat for three reasons:
for energy, to acquire materials to fabricate our cells, and to get special molecules that our bodies can’t make themselves.
The energy and most of the materials come from the three macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
Proteins are the most important resource for repairing and replenishing our cell structures.
The special molecules are a large variety of vitamins and minerals we need to drive metabolic processes.
Meat provides us with most of these things.
It contains all essential amino acids our body needs and a lot of minerals like: iron, zinc and essential vitamins, some of which are barely found in plants like Vitamin B12.
Only one essential nutrient is missing in most of the meat we consume: vitamin C.
It appears in almost all plants and supports our immune system as well as the development of connective tissues.
After a few months without it you’d get scurvy.
But meat has another big advantage, it’s high bioavailability.
Some of the nutrients in meat are broken down faster and available quicker than those from plants.
Spinach for example, contains more iron than meat, but it’s absorbed much slower and the body needs more energy to digest it.
Several health benefits have also been observed in communities that rely solely on meat.
The Inuit for example, are able to survive in extreme climate conditions thanks to a purely meat-based diet.
Since they consume the whole animal including the organs, they get every single nutrient they need including vitamin C.
So meat itself is definitely not dangerous for us.
But its health effects vary, depending on how its prepared and what animal it comes from.
When talking about meat in the Western world, we generally mean muscle tissues that have a high nutrient density, but also lack some of the vitamins that make it possible to survive on meat alone.
The most healthy animals to eat are probably fish.
Fish contains polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3, which may lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases and support anti-inflammatory immune functions.
As part of a balanced diet, fish can be eaten regularly without worries.
Eating fish comes with its own bag of complications though, like overfishing and the destruction of the oceans.
A close second is the most popular meat, chicken.
It’s regarded as the meat with the fewest health risks.
The only negative health effect of poultry is a bit controversial: fat.
It’s high content of saturated fats is associated with a higher cholesterol level and cardiovascular disease.
But this idea has also been criticized by a large number of scientists arguing high cholesterol levels might be inherited and not caused by nutrition.
So in general, if you want meat and are concerned about your health, go for chicken.
Things start to get problematic with high intakes of red meats like beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse and goat.
A recently published study recommends for example a maximum of 23 grams of red meat per day which is a very small steak per week.
However, large-scale meta-analysis studies have shown that eating 100 grams of red meat every day increases the risk of diabetes by 19%, of strokes by 11% and of colorectal cancer by 17%.
This sounds alarming. But before we panic, let’s have a look at how these studies were conducted.
Because this brings us to the second big problem when trying to answer the question of whether meat is unhealthy or not.
Most studies that linked health risks to eating red meat were case-control studies.
Which means taking a group of people with a disease and classifying them by their eating habits.
The more red meat they consume, the more likely they were to contract certain diseases.
The problem is that it’s very hard to eliminate other factors.
People who eat less meat tend to live a healthier lifestyle in general.
They tend to eat more vegetables and fruit and are less likely to smoke and drink alcohol.
Most studies try to eliminate these factors, but it’s extremely hard to make definitive statements.
Things get worse when we look at processed meat though.
Processing meat means adding certain chemicals by curing, smoking, sorting or fermenting or in other words making it delicious.
Bacon, ham, salami, sausages and hot dogs contain chemicals that are harmful for us like nitrates and nitrites that can damage the DNA in our digestive system and lead to cancer.
The w-h-o reviewed 800 studies over 20 years, and concluded that processed wheat is strongly linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
Each extra 50 grams of processed meat per day increases your risk of cancer by 18 percent.
When it comes to cancer risk, processed meat is now in the same category as plutonium, asbestos and smoking.
The w-h-o highlights that it’s research is only about the question of whether or not something causes cancer and not to what extent.
But processed meat may also significantly increase the chance of suffering from diabetes, strokes and coronary heart diseases.
It also makes a difference what sort of life our meat lived when it was still part of a living being.
It’s common to feed large amounts of antibiotics to livestock in order to prevent diseases which can spread antibiotic resistance.
Combined, a high consumption of both red and processed meat could increase your chance of premature death by up to 29%.
This means if your chance of dying is at 3% this year, it’s now 4%.
This might not sound like a lot but tiny percentages have a huge impact on societies of millions.
They also seem harmless until they affect you.
To blame meat alone for bad health would be wrong though.
There is no evidence that the very essence of meat has any negative effect beyond it’s high fat content.
And even this point is highly contentious.
Just like with many other pleasures in life, sometimes too much of a good thing is harmful.
Most public health agencies suggest cutting meat consumption to 500 grams a week while studies suggest cutting down processed meat as much as possible.
So if you feast on meat no more than once or twice a week, you should be good.
For most people this already means a drastic change in their diets though, The average American consumes around almost 1600 grams of meat a week.
The average German 1100 grams a week.
And many of us needs much much more.
If you’re not really sure, make a small note whenever you eat meat for a week or two.
You’ll be surprised how much it really is.
So most people reading this article would benefit from cutting down on meat.
Aside from health concerns, there’s still the fact that the meat industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change and has reached a scale where it’s impossible to deliver millions of tons of meat and still treat animals with dignity.
All in all, in moderation, meat is not unhealthy and you don’t need to become vegetarian overnight to have a real impact on your health and the planet.
But your lifestyle choices do matter.
For yourself and for others.
The key is being open to trying something new once in a while.
Maybe you’ll discover your new favourite dish.
Until you try you’ll never know what you’ll enjoy or what you’re capable of.