Does Red Meat Cause Cancer? - Ask A Nutritionist

April 25, 2024

This week on 'Ask a Nutritionist,' we tackle a big question: Does red meat cause cancer? We’ll look at the real science behind the headlines and explore how the quality of meat and your overall diet affect your health. Tune in to get the facts and make better and more informed choices about eating red meat.

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Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast. My name is Britni Vincent and I am a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. We at Nutritional Weight and Wellness are thrilled to be celebrating 20 years on air discussing the connection between what you eat, how you feel while sharing practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. We want to thank you all for your support and listenership over the years. It really does mean a lot.

Now, let's get started on today's episode. I will be answering a listener's question, and this is a question that definitely comes up frequently, so I think it'll be a popular episode. This listener writes, “Is there a connection between red meat and cancer? And can you eat the fat on red meat, or is it too unhealthy?” If you've been paying attention to news headlines in recent years, you may have seen a warning that eating red meat is linked with an increased risk of cancer.

But I'm here to clarify that this is a very misleading message. And as it's often the case in the media, there's just much more to the story than the headline reads. And our job at Nutritional Weight and Wellness is always to explain the real science behind things, including these headlines. For those of you who have been following Nutritional Weight and Wellness, you know that we do advise eating a variety of high quality animal proteins every day.

So, it might not surprise you that we do not stand by these messages to avoid all red meat. But let's get into how this message came to be and again, what the real science is behind the headline. Maybe you have had it in your head that eating meat, specifically red meat, is unhealthy or it may increase your risk of cancer. Therefore, you've been avoiding it.

Red meat provides essential nutrients

But I do want to point out, there's lots of reasons why people may avoid red meat or other meat. And today, I am just here to speak strictly from a nutrition perspective. And from a nutrition standpoint, we know that red meat provides essential nutrients like complete proteins, B vitamins, especially B12.

It includes minerals like iron, zinc, and in high quality grass fed meat, you will even get essential omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients that I just listed are all ones that many Americans are deficient in because so many of our foods lack necessary nutrients.

Why is the “red meat is bad for us” message out there?

So why would we be getting this message that red meat is bad for us? Let's look into these studies a little bit deeper. The truth is, it's just not as simple as saying eating meat is bad and going fully plant based is good. These studies just do not tell the whole story and the many other significant diet and lifestyle factors that are at play for cancer or other health conditions for that matter.

And it turns out that most often the participants who are in the meat eating group in these studies also happen to eat an overall poor quality diet. They're more likely to over consume alcohol, smoke, and be sedentary compared to the group that didn't eat meat or didn't eat as much meat. So it's really not a fair comparison at all.

It's an example of correlation, not causation. And that's a very, very important, fact to understand. If someone who lives an unhealthy lifestyle ends up getting heart disease or cancer, you wouldn't blame it on one thing, like the fact that they eat meat, right? In reality, there are so many factors that come into play.

Not all meat is created equal

So first, I want to address the fact that not all meat is created equal. At Nutritional Weight and Wellness, we always encourage eating the highest quality animal protein sources, and there's a lot of reasons behind that. Let's take ground beef for example, would you say that eating a fast food burger with fries and a soda would have the same effect in your health as eating a grass fed burger patty with a plate full of fresh vegetables and some pasture raised butter on top of those vegetables?

Of course not. Some of the studies that conclude that red meat causes cancer do not differentiate between the other food items that are being eaten with the beef. So it seems really inappropriate to group all the red meat together when you think of it this way. What is the difference between grass fed and conventional beef? Studies have shown that grass fed meat is high in nutrients, like omega-3s, from the cows eating the grass compared to being fed corn or soy that conventional beef is given.

Another reason grass fed meat surpasses grain fed is that it contains considerably more antioxidants, other vitamins, minerals. It contains carotenoids such as beta carotene and those are precursors to vitamin A. So we're getting a lot more nutrients from that grass fed meat. And when we think about it, cows are meant to graze and eat grass. Cows are not meant to be fed grains and corn. So, as you can imagine, the cows that eat food that their bodies aren't meant to digest and consume, that's going to have a very negative impact on the animal itself.

And we really need to be thinking about not just the food that we're eating, but what is that animal eating? Because we are eating what they are eating, in a sense. You know, conventional beef is nutrient depleted from the cow's poor diet. Again, those grains, the corn, they may be fed a variety of other things, and we do know that the conventional beef contains more inflammatory fats.

Plus, it can contain added hormones, antibiotics, pesticide residues. The cow's diet of mostly corn and other grains, you know, those grains and corn are heavily sprayed with pesticides. And some cows are given hormones to make them produce more milk. They're also given antibiotics to keep them from spreading illness when they're packed tightly into their living spaces.

And all of this gets into the meat and dairy products we consume from conventionally raised cows. Whereas if we take the beef or dairy from these cows and compare it with healthy cows, who are eating grass rich in omega 3s, they're able to roam freely, less likely to spread illness to one another, this meat and dairy produced are very different scenarios and are going to provide very different nutritional profiles.


Now let's take into consideration how different kinds of beef are prepared. You know, maybe it's turned into heavily processed sausages filled with preservatives and fillers and artificial dyes and flavors. Maybe it is turned into a fast food burger. The end product of these type of beef derived foods are far different from fresh, natural beef that you are cooking in your own kitchen.

So as you can see, there are so many different factors into how a blanket statement like red meat is linked to cancer is very misleading. Overall, in the studies making the headlines, consumption of low quality, heavily processed meats along with a poor diet and lifestyle lead to inflammation and potentially cancer.

High quality, less processed meat does not cause the same inflammation in the body. The factory farmed meat compared to grass fed, pasture raised meat should not be grouped together in the same category. It's like comparing apples to oranges.

Is the saturated fat in beef a concern?

Now, what about the saturated fat in beef? The original question from the listener that inspired today's topic asked about eating the fat on red meat. In short, yes, it is okay to eat the fat from quality sources. Again, we recommend a variety of animal proteins from a variety of different sources. Because they all have different nutrients to offer our body. And the fat in the meat from grass fed cows is made up from healthier fats than those conventional cows are.

We also want to think about the fact that toxins are stored in fat cells. So if we are eating conventional beef that may have pesticide residues from the grains or corn that they were consuming or possibly antibiotics, we are then consuming any toxins from that animal. And then when we consume those toxins, they're stored in our fat cells.

So again, that is another reason to look at how those animals are living and what they're being fed. And the reality is the saturated fat and a fast food cheeseburger has a different chemical makeup from what you get in a grass fed steak or a grass fed burger. Eating fat from these high quality red meat sources like grass fed beef really isn't a concern for your health if you're eating an overall healthy diet, getting up other protein sources and maintaining an active lifestyle.

I do want to note that if you are focusing on getting enough protein in your diet, which is something that we often talk about here at Nutritional Weight and Wellness, the leaner cuts of beef or any meat for that matter are going to be more protein dense. So for that reason, you may decide to choose more leaner cuts of meat. But from, again, a health perspective, it is fine to, to consume that fat.

I want to share a quote from a scientific journal, which I think summarizes things really nicely. This came from a study called “Nutritional Benefits from Fatty Acids in Organic and Grass Fed Beef” from the journal called Foods. The quote is, “It is important to consider that the individual foods and nutrients do not directly affect human health in isolation, but feature as part of the whole diet, which interact with many other factors that ultimately determine health.

Switching to pasture fed and organic beef will provide more of the beneficial nutrients, but as to whether that will directly impact human health requires consideration of the several factors, nutritional and other, beyond the fat quality.”

So in conclusion, most of these studies which claim that red meat causes cancer focused on a population of people eating poor quality meat along with an overall poor diet and lifestyle. Think about what they were eating with their beef. It's likely that they were consuming white buns and French fries or other processed food along with that beef.

Tips for how to eat meat to support health

So here are some things to keep in mind for how to eat meat to support your health. Again, choosing that high quality meat and other animal foods in general. So look for labels that read grass fed, pasture raised, or free range poultry, pasture raised eggs, wild caught fish. USDA certified organic is good to look out for too.

Organic does not mean that it's grass fed or free range and if the label states that it's grass fed, that does not mean it's organic. So you do really want to look for both of those. Unless you are purchasing your meat from a local farmer, which is a great way to go about it. Many of those smaller farms are not going to have the money to pay to get certified organic.

So in that case, you just need to ask the questions of, what those cows are fed and how they're living. Along with choosing high quality meat, avoid heavily processed meats like cured meats and sausages with added nitrates and other preservatives. Uncured or no nitrate added bacon, sausage, deli meats, those are okay. And if you look at the ingredient list and it just lists the meat and some spices, that is really ideal.

And the truth is, the food that you eat with meat also matters. So fill your plate with a variety of colorful vegetables. Top it with healthy, natural fats. And avoid the heavily processed carbohydrates as your side dishes. Instead, maybe you have a small amount of sweet potato or baby red potato or squash as your starch. That would be a much better option.

That concludes this week's “Ask a Nutritionist” episode. We hope you learned something and can feel better about eating high quality red meat for your health. If you enjoy listening to “Ask a Nutritionist”, please leave us a review on wherever you listen to your podcast.

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