Red meat causes cancer, diabetes, and heart disease – so says the media.
But is that what the research suggests?
There’s likely no more controversial food than red meat. There are those who believe that you should never consume red meat. And others who think you should follow a carnivorous diet – eating almost exclusively red meat. As always, the truth about red meat is much more nuanced than good vs bad or healthy vs unhealthy. In this post, we’ll dig into the research behind red meat and it’s effect on fatigue, energy production, and your overall health/well-being. Let’s get going!
The myths surrounding red meat
Here’s an (incomplete) list of all the negative health outcomes thought to be associated with red meat:
- Red meat causes cancer
- Red meat causes diabetes
- Red meat causes heart disease
- Red meat causes inflammation
Below, I’ll discuss each of these points in more detail. Let’s go!
Red meat causes cancer
This argument seems to surface on an annual basis. Media outlets create click-bait headlines telling you that if you eat red meat, you’re going to get cancer. (1, 2, 3, 4) But that’s not what the research suggests.
Red meat and it being a cause for colorectal cancer is a common argument made against beef. Yet the scientific literature suggests there’s no connection between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer. One review looked at 35 different studies and still could not find any link between red meat and cancer. (5)
Red meat causes diabetes
The connection between diabetes and red meat began after a 2014 research journal claimed that red meat consumption raised fasting insulin and hemoglobin A1c levels. (6) Fasting insulin and hemoglobin A1c are common markers used to diagnose diabetes. Unfortunately, this study neglected one crucial variable – the participants body mass index (BMI).
As I’m sure you know, being overweight and/or obese is a strong predictor of diabetes. This study failed to consider this variable. When critics accounted for BMI levels, the connection between red meat and diabetes was no more than random chance. Obesity, not red meat, causes diabetes. But you already knew that!
Red meat causes heart disease
Even the NY times jumped on this bandwagon. (7) The problem, they say, is that red meat will raise your blood levels of a compound known as TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide). Researchers believed that TMAO was strongly linked to heart disease. (8) Yet the highest levels of TMAO are found in seafood like halibut, cod, and clams. I don’t know about you but I’ve read countless research journals suggesting that consuming seafood (foods high in omega 3 fatty acids) actually lower your risk of heart disease.
So, how could elevated TMAO be associated with heart disease?
To put it bluntly, it’s not. This was a case of research bias and poor controlling of variables. Eating red meat does not cause heart disease.
Red meat increases inflammation
Red meat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. And proper dosing of your vitamins and minerals is a sure-fire way to reduce inflammation (not raise it!). Other critics of red meat suggest that it is high in the omega-6 fatty acid known as AA (arachidonic acid) and this fatty acid is pro-inflammation. Fortunately, red meat has been shown to actually have lower levels of AA than other meats. (9, 10) And (perhaps most importantly) red meat has been shown to help balance the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. (11)
The key takeaway here is that red meat does not drive inflammation in the way the media portrays it to. This is good news for those of you with chronic fatigue syndrome. In CFS, a lowering of inflammation is always good practice. Now you know that red meat may actually help you do that!
But before you head to your local butcher, know that not all red meat is created equal. In fact, there are dramatic differences in the “healthiness” of red meat based on whether the cow is fed grasses or grains.
Red meat and chronic fatigue
I’ve written about inflammation being tied to fatigue here, here, and here. If you have chronic fatigue syndrome, you need to be mindful of inflammation. Taking steps to lower inflammatory levels will positively impact your energy levels.
With this in mind, should you be consuming red meat if you have chronic fatigue?
As I wrote above, red meat does not cause inflammation in the way(s) you think. But not all red meat is created equal. Conventionally raised cows (think, feedlots) are fed corn, soy, and grains. This is not a cow’s natural diet. Cows eat grass. When you purchase grass-fed beef, there are dramatic changes in the meat’s nutrient profile. And in the context of fatigue, you’re going to want to do everything you can to ensure your diet is high in nutrients.
Grass-fed vs grass-finished vs grain-fed (and why it matters!)
Should your beef be grass-fed, grass-finished, grain-fed, or grain-finished?
There are a lot of options when it comes to beef. The price you pay for your steaks will largely determine the life that the cow led before making it to your kitchen.
Grass-fed cows roam the pasture. Their diet consists of grass. But a diet of grass doesn’t produce a lot of fat on a cow. Less fat means less marbling on your ribeye steak.
Thus, lots of cows are grass-fed but finished on grains. This means they eat grass for the majority of their life but when the time for slaughter draws near, ranchers switch the cows feed to that of grains in order to fatten them up. Even a small amount of time on grains can dramatically alter the fat profile of your meat (and not in a good way!).
For cows that are raised in northern climates, they may be free to eat grass during the summer months. But during the winter, snow covers the grass and ranchers will often opt to feed them grains.
For the healthiest meat, you’re going to want to opt for grass-fed and grass-finished beef. These cows have only been fed grass. They will typically have less fat on them and therefore you’ll notice there’s less marbling on your steaks. Grass-fed and finished beef looks more like bison or game meats – there’s just not that much fat on the animal.
Grass-fed and finished beef will have the highest levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. This is the type of beef you’re going to want to opt for!
Grain fed is conventionally raised beef. And it’s typically done in feedlots. Feedlots are one of the main reasons animal welfare advocates recommend you avoid red meat. And I certainly don’t disagree with them.
The feed used in factory farming operations can include grains, soy, corn, and even meat products (including beef!). This is how mad cow disease is thought to be spread. Remember. cows are ruminants. They have evolved to eat grass – their entire digestive tract is optimized for grass consumption! When you feed ruminant animals grains and/or meat, you’re not going to like the outcome.
What happens when you feed a human nothing but refined or processed foods?
You get sick. And fat. Your health suffers. You’re dependent on medication(s). Same goes for feedlot cows.
If you want healthy, happy meat, you need to opt for grass-fed and finished beef. As you’ll see, grass-finished beef is much better positioned to help you overcome fatigue!
Grass-fed vs grain-fed in the context of fatigue
One of the best ways to improve levels of inflammation is to decrease omega-6 fatty acids and increase omega-3 fatty acids. Grain-fed and grass-fed beef have similar levels of omega-6 fatty acids. But grass-fed beef has 2-5x the amount of omega-3 fatty acids. (12)
This massive increase in omega-3’s dramatically changes the ratio of omega-6:omega-3. In grass-fed beef, the ratio is 1.53:1. In grain-fed beef, the ratio is 7.65:1. (13) Eating grass-fed beef is similar to eating salmon – both are very high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Save the money you spend on fish oil and instead invest it in grass-fed beef. This simple step should help you lower the inflammatory levels in your body.
One study found that those with chronic fatigue had lowered levels of omega-3 fatty acids and elevated levels of omega-6 fatty acids. (14) The same study found that fatigue, depression, and pain levels all increased as levels of omega-6 and 9 increased. Clearly, there is a very strong correlation between CFS and fatty acid balance.
A simple way to skew this balance back in your favor is to swap your grain-fed beef for grass-fed. This simple step is likely to increase your omega-3 fatty acids. Thus potentially lowering your fatigue levels!
Cholesterol levels, red meat, & fatigue
Those with chronic fatigue have been shown to have altered cholesterol profiles when compared to healthy controls. (15, 16, 17) While I think this far more of a correlation than any sort of causal relationship, it’s worth noting that grass-fed beef will improve your cholesterol (lipid) profile. There are 3 different types of saturated fats found in red meat: (18)
- Stearic acid,
- Palmitic acid,
- Myristic acid.
Grass-fed beef contains significantly higher levels of stearic acid than grain-fed beef. And stearic acid has not been shown to raise cholesterol levels. If your last doctor’s visit involved a discussion around you taking a statin medication to improve your cholesterol, a simple, healthy step to naturally lower cholesterol levels would be to switch from grain-fed to grass-fed beef. Who knows, improved cholesterol levels might even help improve fatigue!
Vitamin and minerals found in red meat
When you have chronic fatigue syndrome, your mitochondria are not producing enough energy. This inefficiency in energy production has a side effect of creating a lot of free radicals. Free radicals are one theory being explored as to why you age. Chronic fatigue shares some similarities with the aging process – in CFS, your mitochondrial function declines and your free radical production increases. (19)
Which leads me to grass-fed beef. This meat has way more antioxidants like vitamin E, glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase than grain-fed beef. (20) More antioxidants result in less free radicals. In the context of fatigue, you’re going to want to do what you can to increase your antioxidant content.
Yet another benefit of grass-fed beef is its vitamin and mineral content. Compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed has higher levels of zinc, iron, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium. (21) Those with chronic fatigue tend to have lower serum zinc levels than healthy controls. (22) And this simple act of adding a zinc supplement (in the context of fatigue) has been shown to improve both energy levels and immune function. (23) Instead of supplementing zinc, opt to get it from a food source. Opt for grass-fed beef.
Should you limit red meat consumption if you’re fatigued?
Well, that depends. Both grain and grass-fed beef have a lot of beneficial nutrients. Nutrients that are essential to energy production within your body. In this context, eating any type of red meat is recommended.
But when you dig a little deeper, you do find a great deal of difference between the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids found in grass-fed vs grain-fed beef. When you’re battling an illness like chronic fatigue syndrome, I believe you need to do everything you can to stack the odds in favor of creating healthy mitochondria. That could mean lowering your grain-fed beef consumption. This should help lower your omega-6 and 9 levels.
When it comes to increasing your energy and decreasing inflammatory levels, grass-fed beef is way better than grain-fed. So, my recommendations for those dealing with fatigue are to opt for grass-fed meat whenever possible. And don’t worry what the media says about beef, it’s simply not true. If anything, (grass-fed) red meat will help lower your inflammation, improve your cholesterol, and raise your omega -3 levels. If there was a medication that did all that, it would be the number one seller.
Grass-fed beef will help. It’s one of the healthiest foods you can go for. Enjoy!
Now, I want to hear from you!
How has red meat consumption changed your energy levels?
Also published on Medium.