Red meat isn’t as bad for our health as the popular media has made it out to be. In fact, when properly selected and prepared, red meat can be an extremely healthy food. To start, red meat is loaded with heme-iron, which is easily absorbed by the body and isn’t as likely to cause oxidation as non-heme iron from plant sources.  Since it’s easily absorbed, iron from red meat can be especially beneficial or women, considering about 19% of women in the United States get less than half of the amount of iron they need.  Not getting enough iron can lead to small red blood cells and a lack of energy (anemia). Since it’s used for energy transport, oxygen transport, and metabolism, adequate iron replenishment is also important for endurance athletes and weight lifters.

In addition to containing lots of heme-iron, grass-fed red meat boasts significant amounts of zinc, selenium, B12, choline, omega-3 fatty-acids, and an extremely high-quality protein; very few of such nutrients can be found in adequate supply in the plant world.  So, what makes red meat a questionable health food at best and a potential cause of cancer at worst?  First of all, lets clear the notion that it’s the saturated fat that’s unhealthy.  As part of a balanced diet, saturated fat from animals is an excellent source of energy (which is why animals store excess energy as saturated fat to begin with), and a close look at the available research indicates that there is very weak correlation between saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels (if any).  For more information on saturated fats, I recommend reading Dr. Stephen Guyenet’s excellent article on the subject.

The real problem with red meat, especially as it relates to its potential to cause cancer, is how it’s cooked (choosing grass-fed meat is important too, but that’s for another article).  When red meat is cooked at high temperatures carcinogenic compounds are formed, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  These compounds can mutate cells, leading to cancer.  The types of cancer most commonly associated with consuming red-meat cooked at high temperatures are prostate, colon, and kidney cancer.

The good news is that you don’t have to give up red meat altogether.  You can easily avoid turning your red meat into a cancer bomb by cooking it at a lower temperature.  Oh, and you might also want to consider avoiding hamburgers (especially from fast-food restaurants).  Research indicates that hamburgers are much more prone to overheating and the development of carcinogenic compounds (like heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) than steaks and other whole pieces of meet (like cubed stew meat).  If you really want to have a hamburger, be sure to use grass-fed meat and experiment with cooking at low-temperatures in the oven or simmering in hot water in a pan.

Severals studies found that meat cooked at the temperature of boiling water (212 °F) contained hardly any carcinogenic compounds.  Meat cooked at common frying-pan and grilling temperatures (around 400+ °F), however, contained significant amounts of cancer causing compounds!  Perhaps it’s coincidence that the Israelites cooked their meat in boiling water instead of the open fire, but I’d like to think that God was giving them a hint about how to preserve their health (see 1 Samuel 2:13).

It turns out that those who like their steaks rare have the right idea.  Red meat really only needs to be cooked to 158 °F — any heating beyond that  just results in the formation of extra carcinogens…yum!  The temperature of the meat is a far better indicator of its doneness than its internal or external color. 

The Take Away: Enjoy all the health benefits red meat has to offer by cooking it shorter and at lower temperatures.  Try to keep the cooking heat around 212 °F, and only cook red meat until it reaches 158 °F. Also, don’t forget to be extra careful not to overcook hamburgers, and, if at all possible, avoid fast-food hamburgers.  Otherwise, enjoy beef — it’s what’s for dinner!

References: Vitamin Deficiencies, UC Davis Medical Center; Urinary Mutagenesis and Fried Meat Intake, PubMed; Dietary Intake of Heterocyclic Amines, PubMed; Impact of Meat Consumption, Preparation, and Mutagens On Aggressive Prostate Cancer, PubMed

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Originally posted 2013-09-15 22:12:21.


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