How eating red meat can be bad for you.

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On 12th March, 2012, results were published on line based on findings from 2 huge studies, The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, 1986 – 2008, which followed the health of 51,529 male health professionals and The Nurses Health Study, 1980 – 2008, which followed the health of 121,700 nurses.  And the conclusion of the study was that the consumption of red meat is associated with a significantly elevated risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, from cancer and from all causes of death.1  All rather scary stuff.  The study makes for interesting reading, in the usual brain bending manner of these things.  This blog looks at some other interesting points to be seen in the study and also says why we can’t just eat red meat willy nilly.

The authors do draw distinctions between processed and unprocessed red meat, except when reaching their final conclusions:

However this study did not differentiate unprocessed from processed red meat, and diet and other covariates were assessed at baseline only.

And so here lies a rather important point about eating red meat – or any food, come to that.  I wrote a blog about the ghastly process the ‘meat’ in chicken nuggets has undergone – and here below is that video -presented here for the still.

So there has to be quite a difference between this pink goo, cheap processed meat like peperami or bargain basement ham, air dried top quality prosciutto, red meat, organic red meat and a piece of wild venison, shot in the locality.  What the animal eats in its life, how it is kept and how it is slaughtered all add or detract from the healthiness of the meat.  Intensively reared animals, eating foods they are not designed to eat and given anti-biotics as a matter of course to help them grow more quickly and so on, cannot be as good for us as animals reared with care for their needs, eating a diet that is natural to them, with minimum stress during life and at slaughter. And then what happens to that meat after slaughter also has a huge effect upon how beneficial or not that meat is, as we will see.  So on this level alone, to just state that eating red meat frequently is bad for us is rather oversimplifying things.

Now another problem with red meat is that we must digest it.    To digest red meat properly, we must have adequate levels of HCl in our stomach.  And getting heart burn after a meal is nothing to do with excess acid levels – rather the opposite.  It is more to do with the sphincter at the top of the stomach not closing strongly enough to prevent upward movement of the stomach juices – and it is good levels of stomach acid that prompt the sphincter to close firmly. 2 After the age of 40, eveybody’s production of HCl starts to drop.  But if aged under 40, it cannot be assumed that we have good HCl levels, since this depends upon a good zinc intake – a building block in the body of HCl – and few of us in the Western world can boast that since zinc is depleted from our soils. 3 So sub-optimal levels of HCl mean that we don’t properly digest our meat, and as a result partly digested meat will then enter the digestive system, rotting gently as it passes through the warm, bacterial environment of our colons.  And things can only get worse if we are not doing a good dump at least once every day.  Poorly digested meat has to be a contributory factor in its link to causing bowel cancer.

So this is a prime reason why eating red meat can be bad for us.  Another reason includes how the meat was cooked.  Burnt food is known to be cancer forming, which the study acknowledges.  High temperature cooking is associated with forming various carcinogenic compounds – so although a barbecue can be delicious, if the meat (or fish) is burnt, it is carcinogenic.  It would be wise to take extra anti-oxidants during the barbecue season.

If we study the tables in the study, there are a couple of other things that become apparent.  The participants were divided into 5 sections, based upon overall red meat intake per week.    Here is a table with some of the results:


Red Meat 0.22 0.62 1.01 1.47 2.36
Physical activity 27.5 22.7 20.2 18.8 17.2
BMI 24.7 25.3 25.5 25.7 26
Current smoker 5 7.3 9.8 11.3 14.5
Diabetes 2 2 2.2 2.4 3.5
High blood pressure 19.5 19.7 19.3 19.6 20.2
Currently take multi vit 49.1 42.5 40.3 39.5 36.6
Aspirin use 24.6 26.4 25.9 27.8 27.4
Calorie intake 1659 1752 1886 2091 2396


Red Meat 0.53 1.04 1.52 2.01 3.10
Physical activity 16.9 13.9 13.8 13.3 12.4
BMI 23.9 24.3 24.4 24.5 24.7
Current smoker 25.5 29.1 28.2 29.7 31.6
Diabetes 1.6 1.8 2.1 2.2 2.9
High blood pressure 15.2 15.7 15.5 15.4 16.4
Currently take multi vit 37.9 33.6 33.1 32.8 32.3
Aspirin use 43.2 46.9 46.3 48.3 49.1
Calorie intake 1202 1371 1523 1705 2030


Other things measured did not show such a clear line from those that ate least red meat to those that ate the most.  But we can see here that those that ate the most red meat did the least physical activity, were the fattest, smoked the most, were more likely to have diabetes, had the highest blood pressure, took the least multi vits, took more aspirin and ate the most calories in both groups.  Actually, I found the aspirin intake quite staggering – the men varied between 24.6 and 27.4 pills a week, and the women between 43.2 and 49.1.  What is going on there?  It seems overall that eating red meat is associated generally with a more unhealthy lifestyle. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from all these facts.

In conclusion, no matter which way we wriggle, man is designed to eat meat.  And the reason for this blunt statement lies in our digestive system and how it has evolved over the millennia.  Our digestive system is very different to animals that live solely on plants; essentially, it cannot get sufficient nutrition from plants alone.45A subject worthy of a separate blog. Red meat, and the organ meats, are the the best source of many important nutrients including vitamin B12, zinc and choline.   However, it is best to eat high quality meat, wild if possible, and we must check our levels of HCl to ensure we are properly digesting it.  The meat is best cooked slowly or over a not too intense heat to avoid burnt meat – and if we are eating burnt meat, then it would be wise to take extra antioxidants to help the body fight the carcinogens.  If we want to eat processed meats, then these really must be of the highest possible quality and preferably eaten sparingly.  Jamie Oliver was really on to something in his battle of the turkey twizzler.

Oh dear, what a plateful. Name the poisons!

  1. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein A M et al.  Red meat consumption and mortality.  Results from 2 prospective cohort studies.  Arch intern med. Pub online Mar 12, 2012.  doi. 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287 []
  2. Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You. Jonathan V Wright M.D. and Lane Lenard Ph.D. []
  3. The statement about poor zinc levels is based on my own experience, which is built on the experience of leading strength coach, Charles Poliquin.  I run a simple zinc status test and have never had anybody come anywhere near passing it.  Here is a link to a blog on zinc by Poliquin where he states 98% of the athletes he tests are zinc deficient – and this is in America which is much less densely populated and a younger industrial country than here in the UK. []
  4. The Cambridge encyclopedia of human evolution.  Eds Steve Jone, Robert Martin, David Pilbeam. []
  5. Catching Fire.  How cooking made us human.  Richard Wrangham []

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