Is Unprocessed Red Meat Harmless in Moderation?

Dr. Matthew NagraArticles, Plant-based Diet, Protein, Vegan Protein

Image of various sources of plant-based proteins.

Unprocessed red meat (URM) has been a part of human diets for centuries, but in recent years, there has been a growing concern about its impact on, not just the animals that the meat is sourced from, but both human health and the environment as well. Regarding health, many people claim that URM is harmless as long as you consume it as part of an otherwise healthy diet. But is this claim backed up by evidence?

URM x FV Study

One study that is often cited to support this claim is a cohort that included 26,218 participants and evaluated the impact of URM consumption on cancer risk amongst people with varying levels of fruit and vegetable (FV) intake. The study found that in men consuming low amounts of FV, URM increased the risk of cancer. However, in those consuming moderate/high FV, there was not a significant increase in risk. From this, many claim that URM is perfectly safe, but there are issues with this claim.

Problematic Claims of the Study

Firstly, URM is only consistently linked to a few cancers, including colorectal cancer, so it’s possible that colorectal cancer risk still increased with higher URM, but FV lowered the risk of other cancers, making it appear as though URM didn’t increase the overall risk. Unfortunately, we don’t know for certain as they only looked at total cancer risk in this study.

Secondly, the bigger issue is that URM is most consistently associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer when consumed at a level of 100g/day (700g/week). However, in the prior study, “high” red meat consumption was only defined as >500g/week for men and >300g/week for women. At those levels of intake, it’s not even surprising that there wasn’t a significant increase in risk.

And lastly, people use this study to claim that there is no risk to consuming red meat at all, despite the fact it was only evaluating the association with cancer. What about other diseases? Another very similar study suggested that URM consumption may increase the risk of all-cause mortality (total risk of dying during a study period) in those consuming high amounts of FV. But the results were not statistically significant once again, although there was a similar issue with most of the “high” consumers not even consuming a single 100g serving/day.

URM x Cardiovascular Disease

There’s research that looked specifically at the association between that 100g serving size referenced above and cardiovascular/ heart disease. A study found that consuming 100g of URM/day increased the risk of ischemic heart disease by 93%, specifically in those with the highest diet quality (high intakes of FV, whole grains, fish, low intakes of saturated fat/sugar). Now, this 93% figure isn’t super precise, so the actual risk could be more or less. However, the fact of the matter is, consuming 100g of URM per day wasn’t risk-free. These results are also corroborated by a US study, including 6 cohorts, where consumption of URM increased the risk of cardiovascular disease amongst those with higher diet quality.

What’s the Verdict?

So, what does this all mean for our diets? While many people subscribe to the belief that URM is harmless – maybe even beneficial – in an otherwise healthy diet, the evidence suggests otherwise. While it’s important to consider the context of your diet overall, URM consumption does not appear to be risk-free if consumed regularly at a dose of about 100g/day on average.

As it is, a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low in saturated fat and sugar, will not eradicate the harm of a weekly ribeye. So, when you take a look at meat heavy diets such as many iterations of the paleo, keto, or the carnivore diet, one could argue that the health risks may climb substantially, even when consumed with plenty of vegetables, based on the findings above. Although the vegetable comment isn’t applicable to the carnivore diet example for obvious reasons.

It’s safe to say that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant-based protein can do wonders for human health. With all the meatless options available, there is plenty of room to substitute URM for healthier protein sources, such as tofu, edamame, textured vegetable protein, lentils, beans, and seitan, all of which are nutritious and can leave us feeling satiated. In fact, substituting even modest amounts of URM, in the ballpark of a serving or less per day, with plant protein sources can significantly reduce our risk of cardiovascular diseases and mortality!

Consult a Plant-Based Doctor

Along with disease prevention, a plant-based diet can also help TREAT certain diseases. For an added level of guidance and support, Dr. Nagra is a plant-based doctor with the knowledge, expertise, and training to help his patients through this transition. Get in touch today!