Red meat causes cancer, diabetes, and heart disease – so says the media.
But is that what the research suggests?
There may not be a more controversial food than red meat. On one hand you have the people who believe that you should never consume red meat. Then on the other hand are the people 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 some of the illnesses thought to be associated with red meat:
- Heart disease
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.
A common argument against red meat is that it causes colorectal cancer. Yet the scientific literature suggests there’s no connection between eating red meat and colorectal cancer. One review looked at 35 different studies and still could not find any link between red meat and cancer. (5)
For a much deeper dive into red meat and cancer, check out Chris Kresser’s post.
Red meat causes type 2 diabetes
The connection between type 2 diabetes and red meat began after a 2014 research journal claimed that eating red meat raised fasting insulin and hemoglobin A1c levels. (6) These 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 type 2 diabetes. This study failed to consider this variable. When critics accounted for BMI levels, the connection between red meat and type 2 diabetes was no more than random chance. Obesity, not red meat, causes type 2 diabetes. But you already knew that!
Red meat causes heart disease
Even the NY Times jumped on this bandwagon. The problem, they say, is that red meat will raise levels of a compound known as TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) in your blood. 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’ve read countless research journals suggesting that eating foods high in omega 3 fatty acids (like seafood) actually lowers 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 poorly controlled 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 (CFS) because in CFS, it’s always a good idea to lower inflammation. 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 reduce inflammation will positively impact your energy levels.
With this in mind, should you be consuming red meat if you have chronic fatigue?
Not all red meat is created equally. The health of red meat depends on what the cow was fed. Conventionally raised cows (think, feedlots) are fed corn, soy, and grains which is not a cow’s natural diet. Cows eat grass, and cows that are raised on grass produce meat with a dramatically different 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!)
Have you ever wondered why red meat is referred to like this?
It’s not just a marketing tool – how the cow that produced your steak was fed dictates how many nutrients is in your steak.
There are a lot of options when it comes to beef – read on to learn about your best, and worst, options.
Grass-fed and grass-finished
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 – very lean.
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!
Grass-fed and grain-finished
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 in your ribeye steak.
So to increase the fat content, many 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 their feed to 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!).
Another reason for a grass-fed and grain-finished cow is climate. 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.
Grain fed is conventionally raised, feedlot beef. 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!). 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 need medication. The 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 also much better 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. (12) 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 lower 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 omega-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 and possibly lower your fatigue levels!
Cholesterol levels, red meat, & fatigue
The cholesterol profiles of people with chronic fatigue are different 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 three 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 does not raise cholesterol levels. If doctor is recommending you take 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 creates a lot of free radicals. There are studies taking place looking into the connection between free radicals and aging. The results of this study may help us learn more about chronic fatigue as it 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. Grass-fed beef contains more antioxidants than grain-fed beef, (20) and more antioxidants result in fewer 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 zinc level, (22) but simply adding a zinc supplement has been shown to improve both energy levels and immune function. (23) Instead of supplementing zinc, opt to get it from a food source, like 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 that are essential to energy production. 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, red meat (grass-fed if possible) 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 extremely popular.
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?