Meat is a highly controversial food.
On one hand, it’s a staple in many diets and a great source of protein and important nutrients.
On the other hand, some people believe eating it is unhealthy, unethical, and unnecessary.
This article takes a detailed look at the health benefits and potential risks of eating meat.
What is meat?
Meat is the flesh of animals that humans prepare and consume as food.
In the United States and many other countries, the term mainly refers to the muscle tissue of mammals and birds. It’s typically consumed as steak, chops, ribs, or roast, or in ground form.
In the past, offal — including liver, kidneys, brains, and intestines — was commonly enjoyed in most cultures. However, most Western diets now exclude it.
Nevertheless, offal remains popular in some parts of the world, particularly among traditional societies. Many delicacies are also organ-based.
Foie gras is made from duck or goose liver. Sweetbreads are thymus glands and pancreas, while menudo is a soup that contains tripe (stomach).
Today, most meat worldwide comes from domesticated animals raised on farms, mainly large industrial complexes that often house thousands of animals at a time.
However, in some traditional cultures, hunting animals remains the sole means of obtaining it.
Meat refers to the muscle or organs of an animal consumed as food. In most parts of the world, it comes from animals raised on large industrial farms.
Types of meat are categorized by their animal source and how they are prepared.
This comes from mammals and contains more of the iron-rich protein myoglobin in its tissue than white meat. Examples include:
- beef (cattle)
- pork (pigs and hogs)
- veal (calves)
- game, such as bison, elk, and venison (deer)
This is generally lighter in color than red meat and comes from birds and small game. Examples include:
- wild birds, such as quail and pheasant
Processed meat has been modified through salting, curing, smoking, drying, or other processes to preserve it or enhance flavor. Examples include:
- hot dogs
- luncheon meats, such as bologna, salami, and pastrami
Meat comes from a variety of animals and is classified as either red or white, depending on the source. Processed products have been modified with additives to enhance flavor.
Nutrients in meat
Lean meat is considered an excellent protein source. It contains about 25–30% protein by weight after cooking.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked chicken breast contains about 31 grams of protein. The same serving of lean beef contains about 27 grams.
Animal protein is a complete protein, meaning it provides all nine essential amino acids.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of lean beef provides:
- Calories: 205
- Protein: About 27 grams
- Riboflavin: 15% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Niacin: 24% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 19% of the DV
- Vitamin B12: 158% of the DV
- Niacin: 24% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 19% of the DV
- Zinc: 68% of the DV
- Selenium: 36% of the DV
The nutrient profiles of other muscle meats are similar, although they contain less zinc. Interestingly, pork is especially high in the vitamin thiamine. Pork chops provide 78% of the DV for thiamine per 5.5-ounce (157-gram) serving.
Liver and other organs are also high in vitamin A, vitamin B12, iron, and selenium. They’re also an excellent source of choline, an important nutrient for brain, muscle, and liver health.
Meat is an excellent source of protein and several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, niacin, and selenium.
Cooking methods and effects on carcinogens
Cooking and preparing meats in certain ways may negatively affect your health.
When they’re grilled, barbecued, or smoked at high temperatures, fat is released and drips onto hot cooking surfaces.
This produces toxic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can rise and seep into the meat.
PAHs are carcinogenic, meaning they can cause cancer. However, minimizing smoke and quickly wiping away drippings can reduce PAH formation by up to 89%.
Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs), most of which have been shown to be carcinogenic in long-term animal studies, are formed when meat is heated to high temperatures, resulting in a dark crust.
HAA levels have been observed to rise during extended cooking times and when meat is chill-stored or ripened in the fridge for many days.
Furthermore, nitrates are additives in processed meats that were formerly considered carcinogenic, but they are now considered harmless or even beneficial.
However, researchers disagree about whether similar additives known as nitrites (with an “i”) increase cancer risk.
Cooking food at high temperatures or for long periods can increase the production of toxic byproducts capable of causing cancer.
Meat and cancer
Many people claim that eating meat raises cancer risk. However, this probably depends on the type you eat and how it’s cooked.
Is red meat bad?
Some observational studies link a high red meat intake to several types of cancer, including digestive tract, prostate, kidney, and breast cancers.
However, in nearly every study, the association was between cancer and well-done meat, PAHs, or HAAs, rather than red meat itself. These studies indicate that high-heat cooking had a very strong effect.
Of all cancers, colon cancer has the strongest association with red meat intake, with dozens of studies reporting a connection.
Aside from a few studies that didn’t distinguish between cooking method and processed and non-processed meat, the increased risk seems to occur mostly with higher intake of processed and well-done meat.
In a 2011 analysis of 25 studies, researchers concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support an association between red meat and colon cancer.
Other factors that may affect cancer risk
While red meat cooked at high temperatures may increase cancer risk, white meat doesn’t seem to have this effect. In fact, one study found that poultry consumption was linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer, even when cooked to the point of charring.
Animal and observational studies suggest that, in addition to toxic compounds created during high-heat cooking, heme iron found in red meat may play a role in colon cancer development.
In addition, some researchers believe processed meat may potentially lead to inflammation in the colon that increases cancer risk.
In one study, adding calcium or vitamin E to cured meat reduced levels of toxic end-products in the feces of humans and rats. What’s more, these nutrients were found to improve pre-cancerous colon lesions in the rats.
It’s important to realize that because these studies are observational, they only show a relationship and cannot prove that red or processed meat causes cancer.
However, it seems wise to limit your consumption of processed meat. If you choose to eat red meat, use gentler cooking methods and avoid burning it.
Observational studies have shown a link between well-done or processed meat and an increased risk of cancer, especially colon cancer.
Meat and heart disease
Several large observational studies exploring meat intake and heart disease have found an increased risk with processed products. Only one study found a weak association for red meat alone.
In 2010, researchers performed a massive review of 20 studies including over 1.2 million people. They found that consuming processed — but not red — meat appeared to increase heart disease risk by 42%.
However, these studies don’t prove that a high intake of processed meat causes heart disease. They only show an association.
Some controlled studies have found that frequent meat consumption, including high-fat varieties, has a neutral or positive effect on heart disease risk factors.
Processed meat has been linked to heart disease in some studies, while controlled studies have shown that meat may have a neutral or beneficial effect.
Meat and type 2 diabetes
Several large studies have also shown an association between processed or red meat and type 2 diabetes.
A review of 3 studies found that consuming more than half a serving of red meat daily increased the risk of developing diabetes within 4 years by 30%, in part related to weight gain.
However, it’s possible that those who developed diabetes had engaged in unhealthy diet habits, such as consuming too many refined carbs, eating too few vegetables, or simply overeating in general.
Studies show that low-carb diets, which tend to be high in meat, reduce blood sugar levels and other diabetes markers.
Some observational studies show a relationship between red and processed meats and increased diabetes risk. However, this may also depend on other dietary factors.
Benefits of eating meat
Eating meat has several health benefits:
Reduced appetite and increased metabolism. Many studies have shown that high-protein diets that include meat increase metabolic rate, reduce hunger, and promote fullness.
Retention of muscle mass. Animal protein intake is consistently linked to increased muscle mass. In one study in older women, eating beef increased muscle mass and reduced markers of inflammation.
Stronger bones. Animal protein may improve bone density and strength. In one study, older women with the highest intake of animal protein had a 69% decreased risk of hip fractures.
Better iron absorption. Meat contains heme iron, which your body absorbs better than non-heme iron from plants.
How to maximize benefits and minimize negative effects
Here’s how to ensure you’re consuming meat in a way that’s healthiest for you and the planet:
Choose non-processed products. Non-processed meat will always be healthier for you than processed varieties.
Give organ meats a try. Add organ meats to your diet to take advantage of their high nutrient content.
Minimize high-heat cooking. If you grill, barbecue, or use another high-heat method, wipe away drippings right away and avoid overcooking or charring.
Consume unprocessed, plant-based foods. These are high in fiber, contain valuable antioxidants, and help make your diet well balanced.
Choose organic meat from small farms. This is more environmentally friendly and better from an ethical perspective.
Select grass-fed beef. Cattle that consume a natural diet of grass — rather than grain — produce meat that is higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
To maximize benefits and minimize risk, choose non-processed meat, avoid high-heat cooking, include plant foods in your diet, and choose organic or grass-fed whenever possible.