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How Bad is Red Meat Really?

Steaks and cheeseburgers are some of the greatest comfort foods, but the negative press surrounding red meat can make them seem less comforting. 

The environmental damage done by the animals and manufacturing processes that provide meat is certain, but the damage done to your body is less so. For the most part, red meat consumption is believed to lead to things like heart disease and cancer.

As with many things, we turn to science for the answer. Scientists provide the best answer they can, as long as their results aren’t misinterpreted. To figure out how eating red meat affects the body, it’s important to take into consideration the scientific process behind the scenes.

Observational research is the easiest way to get a lot of data quickly, particularly in regards to diet. Scientists can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of people quickly. All they need to do is send out a survey that asks how often you eat red meat per week and if you have certain health problems. They can follow up as often as they want to track both trends over time.

Often, people who eat red meat tend to develop more health problems than those who don’t. Does this mean that red meat causes health problems? Not necessarily. As scientists love to say, “correlation does not imply causation.” In other words, just because someone who eats red meat has a heart attack doesn’t mean that red meat caused it.

Randomized controlled trials are more accurate than observational research and can provide more answers to our questions. The American Heart Association published a meta-analysis of 36 different randomized controlled trials in 2019 that investigated the effects of red meat on cardiovascular risk factors. They found that the answer wasn’t as clear-cut as was once believed.

The studies the researchers reviewed had subjects eat red meat then swap it for another food, such as carbohydrates or plant-based protein sources. Here’s what they found:

  • Swapping plant-based protein for red meat reduced cholesterol levels (interestingly, both red meat and plant protein caused cholesterol to drop, but those who ate plant proteins had a bigger drop).
  • Swapping fish for red meat caused a slower drop in LDL cholesterol (the bad one). In other words, red meat was actually more beneficial.
  • Swapping red meat for carbohydrates (bread and pasta) caused a slower decrease in triglyceride levels. In other words, red meat was more beneficial

In conclusion, swapping red meat for plant-based protein is probably healthier, but other substitutes are less certain. The scientific process often takes a long time to come up with an answer, and in the case of red meat, more research needs to be done in the future.

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