Despite the popularity of the Meatless Monday campaign and the buzz for “bleeding” veggie burgers, meat consumption continues to rise in the U.S.
In fact, this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the average person will consume 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry, the most since 2004.
However, as Americans eat more animal protein than ever before, researchers in Israel suggest in a new study that the increased meat consumption may lead to chronic conditions that had not been reported previously.
Specifically, the study, which was published today in the Journal of Hepatology, suggests high consumption of red and processed meats, including sausage and hot dogs, may lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and insulin resistance.
Previous studies have connected high consumption of red meat and processed meat with several other chronic conditions, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The new study is the first to connect the popular protein choices with these metabolic conditions.
“Unhealthy Western lifestyle plays a major role in the development progression of NAFLD, namely, lack of physical activity and high consumption of fructose and saturated fat,” Professor Shira Zelber-Sagi, RD, PhD, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “Our study looked at other common foods in the Western diet, namely red and processed meats, to determine whether they increase the risk for NAFLD.”
Zelber-Sagi and her colleagues recruited 357 people between the ages of 40 and 70 for their study. Each participant underwent several screenings and studies, including a colonoscopy. Participants were also asked to keep a food diary to measure meat consumption details.
At the end of the two-year study, 38.7 percent of participants were diagnosed with NAFLD, and 30.5 percent were diagnosed with insulin resistance.
The food journals revealed that in general, people ate more white meat than red meat.
The ratio of red meat consumption to white meat was one-third to two-thirds, which means even when red meat isn’t the majority of meat consumption, the risks still exist.
So, is there still a place for meat on the plate?
Despite her researchers’ findings, Zelber-Sagi says there is absolutely still reason to eat meat, including red meat.
“We should remember that meat contributes valuable nutrients that are beneficial to our health, including protein, iron, zinc, and B12 vitamins,” Zelber-Sagi told Healthline. “Fish are even more beneficial due to its omega-3 fatty acids content, which has anti-inflammatory effects. Poultry consumption was not related with NAFLD or insulin resistance. Thus, meat can be part of the diet.”
But Wendy Kaplan, MS, RDN, CDN, says be wary of processed meats.
“Recommendations put forth by the American Institute for Cancer Research for red and processed meat differ,” she says. “There is an established threshold for red meat of no more than 18 ounces cooked per week. However, unlike red meat, a recommended limit of processed meat does not exist since even small amounts increase your risk for certain types of cancer.”
Max Lugavere, brain health expert and author of Genius Foods, encourages people to think about their diet more holistically.
“A person’s overall dietary pattern matters more to their health than any one meal,” said Lugavere. “There are important nutrients in both red meat as well as vegetables. I advise a diet that is mostly non-starchy vegetables with the addition of properly-raised meat.”
That’s a sentiment Jennifer Kaplan also shares. Kaplan, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California, believes the quality of the meat makes the greatest impact in the food’s overall healthful qualities.
“Most of the confusion about the benefits and risk of red meat are the result of an industrial meat system gone awry,” Kaplan said. “Approximately 97 percent of America’s beef cattle are grain-fed, which means corn-fed.”
Cows are ruminants and not able to digest corn, Kaplan explained. The cows are then fed a diet of corn, liquefied fat, protein supplements, vitamins, antibiotics, and straw or hay.
“In contrast, grass-fed beef is considered to be a healthier red meat because grass feeding cows typically results in a leaner meat, or meat with a lower total fat content and a more healthful fatty acid profile,” she adds.
Indeed, a 2017 review in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that red meat consumption does not significantly increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease.
Instead, the report found the presence of visible fat and the use of preservatives in the meat linked red meat consumption with increased cardiovascular risk.
How you cook your food may be just as important as the meat you pick, Zelber-Sagi and her colleagues reported in the study. They recommend you adopt healthier cooking techniques and avoid frying or grilling to the point of well done or very well done.
“Cooking meat to a level of well done or very well done may form unfavorable changes in the meat,” that can affect health the researchers said. “The creation of HCAs [heterocyclic amines] is one of the most unfavorable changes during meat cooking.”
HCAs are pro-inflammatory compounds that can damage your body. The study revealed that people who cooked meat with the unhealthiest methods had a higher chance of being diagnosed with insulin resistance.
The role of Paleo and keto diets in protein’s popularity
Ultra-low-carb diets, like paleo and the ketogenic diet, are swiftly gaining popularity. Quite different from traditional Western diets, these diets eliminate almost all sources of carbs, including many vegetables and fruits. Instead, the diet relies heavily on animal protein and low-carb foods, such as dairy.
But, Zelber-Sagi says, the rules still apply: Eat meat in moderation, and select high-quality meat.
“We can generally say that the results of our study do not contradict the assumption that low-carbohydrate diets help to improve insulin resistance and NAFLD,” Zelber-Sagi says. “We emphasize that a low-carbohydrate diet by itself may not be good enough to prevent insulin resistance, and that healthy protein selection should be emphasized.
“In other words, it is not necessarily enough to keep on [a] low-carbohydrate diet. One should also choose healthy meat sources, like chicken or turkey, and healthy cooking methods,” she adds.