By Valerie Johnson, MHSc, RD
If you enjoy a good steak, but wonder about meat’s healthfulness, you may be reassured by some of the latest scientific evidence. Many recent research reports underscore the natural nutritional value of red meat, such as beef, as part of a healthy balanced diet.
What does the FAO say?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), recently undertook a comprehensive review of nutrition and health outcomes related to foods from animal sources, including meat, milk, and eggs. Their review of more than 500 scientific papers and 250 policy documents, culminated in the publication of their 2023 FAO report entitled, Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health outcomes.
Based on current evidence, the FAO concluded that “Meat, eggs and milk offer crucial sources of much-needed essential nutrients which cannot easily be obtained from plant-based foods.” Highlighting that these foods provide “High-quality protein, a number of essential fatty-acids, iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, Vitamin B12, choline and bioactive compounds like carnitine, creatine, taurine” that “have important health and developmental functions”.
The FAO report emphasizes these contributions are especially vital during key life stages, such as for women during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and for children, teens, and older adults.
The FAO report also concluded that consuming modest amounts of unprocessed red meat (ranging from 9 to 71 g/day) has minimal health risk. To help put this range into context, on average, Canadians eat 41 g of unprocessed red meat per day (based on Statistics Canada data).
A growing number of publications, including this FAO report, urge governments around the globe to consider the nutritional contributions of foods from animal sources for better health. Just like foods from plants, foods from animal sources make unique nutritional contributions.
Research shows that meat contains important micronutrients that are often lacking in our diets
Research shows that animal source foods, including red meat, are an important source of micronutrients that people often lack in their diet. Even in high-income countries, deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron are common, especially among women of reproductive age.
Many women and children (especially teenage girls) in Canada do not get enough iron in their usual diets. Red meat is a particularly reliable dietary source because it contains a good amount of iron and provides iron in a form that is more easily absorbed by the body. In fact, a Canadian study by University of Toronto researchers found that more frequent red meat consumption is the strongest dietary predictor of better iron status in women. Getting enough iron is particularly critical for women in the childbearing years, to support healthy pregnancies.
What does the research say about meat consumption and risk for chronic disease?
Regarding chronic disease concerns, a Burden of Proof study published in 2022 evaluated the strength of the available evidence related to red meat and six health outcomes. For this rigorous study, researchers looked at all the available evidence. Based on their meta-analysis, they found weak to no evidence of associations between unprocessed red meat consumption and ischemic heart disease, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic stroke, and hemorrhagic stroke. An earlier meta-analysis published in 2019 also found little to no health benefits for reducing red meat consumption below current intakes in North America.
The global Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study specifically evaluated meat intakes and the risk of major cardiovascular disease (i.e. heart attack or stroke) in adults from 21 countries. This study found no association between unprocessed red meat or poultry intakes and major cardiovascular disease. In fact, earlier findings presented by the lead author of the PURE study, suggest high-quality diets, that emphasize vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, dairy foods, fish, and unprocessed red meat, are associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk.
What about saturated fat?
Recent reviews have also looked specifically at saturated fat and cardiovascular disease risk.
A 2020 state-of-the-art review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reassessed the evidence relating to saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. The authors note recommendations to limit saturated fat intake have persisted despite mounting evidence to the contrary. They conclude current evidence shows no beneficial effects of reducing saturated fat intakes on cardiovascular disease risk. They further conclude, the evidence does not support further limiting intakes of foods such as unprocessed red meat and whole-fat dairy foods.
Further, a 2022 review published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology also found no association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. This review concluded there is no scientific ground to demonize saturated fat as a cause of cardiovascular disease. And that saturated fat found naturally in nutrient-dense foods can be safely included in the diet.
These conclusions are in keeping with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada’s 2015 position statement on saturated fat, heart disease and stroke that encourages Canadians to pay attention to the overall quality of our diets, rather than focusing on saturated fat.
Meat is a naturally nutrient-dense food that has been an important component of the human diet for millions of years. A worldwide analysis of population data from 175 countries/territories published in 2022 found that greater meat intake correlates with better life expectancy. The authors point out that even in countries with a Mediterranean diet, life expectancy is greater when there is more meat in the diet. This finding suggests that eating meat offers benefits to human health that support longevity.
Our bodies need many different nutrients for good health. Enjoying red meat as part of a healthy diet can help meet needs for essential nutrients like protein and iron among others.