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Our ancestors have been consuming red meat — beef, lamb, pork, veal and venison — since the dawn of time, but this trend has been curtailed significantly in recent decades. In fact, according to a recent Gallup Poll, nearly 1 in 4 Americans reported eating less red meat than they did the year prior. There are many reasons for this, including concerns over one’s health, as well as the effect on the environment, but another major reason has to do with the manufacturing practices and interventions used today.
“For example, some practices allow the red meat we consume to be high quality, organic and raised without hormones while other practices are the opposite,” notes Lisa Richards, CNC, nutritionist and creator of the Candida diet.
In its most natural form, red meat is quite nutritious. It provides us with plenty of protein (what’s considered HBV or high-biological value) as well as essential micronutrients like iron, vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin B6, zinc and phosphorus, explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., CISSN, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness.
“Long-chain omega-3 fats may also be present in the red meat, depending on the diet the animal consumes along with riboflavin, pantothenic acid, selenium and even trace amounts of vitamin D,” he says.
While red meat does obtain a hefty dose of nutrients, we can get all these from other sources.
“Other animal proteins, dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains and other sources all provide us with the spectrum of nutrients necessary to function optimally,” Adams explains. What’s more: Red meat, especially when consumed in high amounts, can be linked to health concerns. In fact, the World Health Organization has labeled red and processed meats (hot dogs, sausages, etc.) as being a carcinogen, or cancer causing — and studies, including one published in the journal Oncology Reviews, have linked high red-meat intake with an increased risk of colorectal (bowel) cancer. Other research has shown links between red-meat intake and increased incidences of Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.
Adams points out, however, that as substantial as this research is, it’s not to say simply eating red meat increases your risks for these diseases.
“Red meat would have to be a significant source of your protein over time to cause these problems — and, keep in mind, the difficult part is placing blame on one food as a culprit for disease,” he says. “As humans, we eat a varied diet, so even the best research still struggles picking out a single food to blame for disease.”
What we do know, however, is that there are some surprising benefits of cutting out red meat. Here, nutrition experts share some of the key take-aways.
1. You could reduce your risk of heart disease.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And one of the potential risks for heart disease is a diet high in red meat. “Red meat has more saturated fat than leaner choices like chicken and fish, which has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease,” Adams explains. “Adding in more heart-healthy veggies and monounsaturated fats are also key when trying to reduce your risk for heart disease.”
2. You might go to the bathroom more regularly.
Improving the regularity of your bowel movements is another surprising benefit of reducing red-meat intake.
“Red meat takes a bit longer to digest and move through the digestive system, which may alter your bowel movements or make them less frequent,” Adams explains. “Replacing red meat with other animal and vegetable proteins will lessen the transit time through your gastrointestinal system and help keep you regular.”
3. You might lose weight.
Cutting out red meat and swapping it for leaner sources of protein can result in weight loss, Richards notes.
“This is not only due to the loss of saturated fat and calories found in red meat but also because it is quite common to eat more than the recommended 3-ounce serving of red meat,” she says. In other words, you could very easily consume more calories and fat than necessary at one sitting. “Switching to a leaner meat or plant protein can help mitigate this issue,” she adds.
4. You might have more energy.
Increased energy is something most of us could stand to benefit from to get us through our day. As it turns out, one benefit of cutting out red meat and replacing it with other sources of lean or plant protein is improved energy levels. This is due to the fact that the body uses a lot of energy to break down and digest red meat, Richards notes. When you’re consuming other foods, especially those that are iron- and B12-rich, you can expect to see a spike in energy.
5. You may be helping the environment.
One unexpected benefit of cutting out red meat actually has to do with the planet. The production involved in producing it takes a toll on the environment, leading to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and pollution, according to research published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
A systematic review of a series of studies published in PLOS One found that vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian diets significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions when compared to meat-heavy diets.
“Livestock are a major contributor to pollution, methane, soil erosion and water use,” Adams says. You don’t have to cut red meat out altogether to help the environment.
If you do choose to cut out red meat, you don’t always have to supplement. You can consume other lean sources of animal protein and, therefore, still obtain all these nutrients through food, notes Michelle Routhenstein, RD, CDE, CDN, cardiology dietitian and preventative cardiology nutritionist. However, that may not be the case if you’re transitioning to a plant-based diet.
“If someone were to go completely vegan and abstain from all animal products, they will need to consider supplementation of B12 and possibly omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, depending on their other food intake,” Routhenstein says. “I would highly recommend working with a qualified registered dietitian nutritionist to ensure adequate nutrient sufficiency, especially when on a restricted diet.”