Here's what you need to know about eating animal meat—and how it truly impacts your health
As seen in Metro Style, June 25, 2023
Everyone always wants to know what the bad foods are so they can avoid them in the hopes of improving their health. Animal meat like poultry, fish, seafood, and particularly red meat, have gotten a bit of a bad reputation in the last few years, and plant-based diets like vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian diets have gained popularity for health purposes, as well as environmental considerations.
And some foods are good one day, bad the next, and sometimes good again, making healthy eating very confusing.
In truth, it is difficult to study food and nutrition. Most studies observe patterns and associations in populations, so just because things are linked, it doesn’t mean causation. It would be very hard to study the effects of eating one single food alone. Nutrition is not just about single foods but everything you eat in total. And there are many more factors in health beyond just food too, including genetics, so what works for one person may not work for another.
It’s important too to consider culture, preference, and accessibility. Filipino diets tend to have meat as our main viand, and going fully plant-based tends to be a big challenge. Interestingly, there has actually been a slight decrease in the popularity of vegan diets globally, in part because it is difficult to plan a nutritionally complete diet without animal meat.
So what do we need to know about eating animal meat?
When it comes to meat, there are still definitely nutrients in them. Fish, poultry, seafood, and red meat are a good protein source and typically contain higher amounts than plant products. Animal protein is also more easily absorbed than plant protein, and “complete,” meaning it contains essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, that we need to consume because our body cannot make them. Most people do get enough protein in their diets.
Meat is also a good source of vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 exclusively found in animal products, heme iron, a more absorbable form of iron, selenium, and zinc. Fish and seafood are also rich sources of omega-3 fats, which support heart and brain health, and even good mood. Going fully plant-based means being extra careful planning your diet to ensure you get enough of these nutrients.
Red meat is at the center of the meat debate, and high consumption of beef, pork, lamb, and especially processed meat, is connected to increased risks of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Processed meats like canned meat, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, salami, are actually classed as “carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization, while red meat is classed as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
There are several suspected reasons why red meat in particular would have this effect. For one, animal products contain saturated fat, a type of fat that increases LDL cholesterol levels, the “bad” cholesterol, which increases your risk of heart disease. Processed and red meat also contain a number of other compounds linked to colon cancer by causing damage to the gut, while excessively high heme iron, found in red meat, is also linked to some types of cancer and organ damage.
There is also a question of antibiotics and hormones used in meats. Although there are regulations in place to ensure safety, some individuals choose to consume organic or hormone-free meat, or wild caught fish.
That said, choosing more animal proteins like poultry, fish, and seafood in the appropriate portions can be more nutritious choices, and limiting red meat to 2-3 servings per week, while limiting processed meat to as little as possible.
Part of the argument to reduce animal meat is connected to its environmental impact. In general, producing animal foods is connected to more land and water usage, overfishing and marine ecosystem degradation, as well as increased animal waste and pollution and animal welfare and effects on climate change. It is worth noting that some agricultural practices can also have a large environmental impact.
All or nothing
At the end of the day, if you decide to include animal meat in your diet, consider the type and quantity of what you consume. You don’t need to completely eliminate a certain food to improve your health. And you do want to make sure you are eating enough protein, and other nutrients too. It is reasonable to decide to exclude processed meat, and consider reducing red meat to only a few times a week, focusing on more nutritious animal meats like poultry and seafood, or other protein sources like eggs, dairy, and plant sources like beans and soy to make up a larger part of your diet. And even if you choose a more plant-based diet, it’s okay if you eat meat once in a while.
Consider also the other foods you're eating and your overall dietary pattern, especially plant foods, as well as the many other factors that are involved in health like physical activity, sleep and stress, social connection and a sense of purpose.