This post has been updated.
We all hear about how bad red meat is for both the planet’s health and our own. Planet-wise, there’s no argument: The detrimental effects of greenhouse gases from livestock production on the earth’s atmosphere can’t be overlooked. It’s in our best interest to minimize the cow farts, even if the the health benefits of not eating red meat are a little more nuanced.
On the one hand, numerous studies over the years have shown that too much red meat isn’t the greatest for our bodies. It’s often rich in fat and cholesterol, and an increase in both has been associated with numerous health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Other studies have also found that its consumption poses an increased risk for colorectal cancer, along with many other lifestyle and genetic factors.
But the truth is, humans have been consuming red meat for a long, long time. In fact, scientists have identified animal bone fossils from 2.6 million years ago that showed butchery marks made by early humans. Our ancient ancestors were smart eaters: Red meat has a plethora of nutrients. A serving of red meat contains a healthy dosing of protein as well as vital nutrients including iron, vitamin B12, and zinc, among others. But it’s absolutely not true that red meat is the only food that provides these nutrients. The key, says Leslie Bonci, a registered dietician and sports nutritionist, is to be aware of what you are missing and fill in the blanks. “Things like zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins are not unique to red meat, but they certainly are a major component of them,” Bonci says. “If you give it up, then you are going to have to work harder and find lots of other types of food items to be able to make up that difference.”
So if you never ate red meat again, and were extremely vigilant about your nutritional needs, then you would be okay? Potentially, as long as you stay smart about what you eat instead. Bonci says iron will be the biggest hurdle. “Red meat has a lot of iron in it. And it’s a readily available source of iron.”
In fact, the iron in red meat—what’s called heme iron—is arguably much easier to absorb than iron found in plants, which is known as non-heme iron. That’s because non-heme, plant-based iron requires acid for the body to absorb it. So unless you are pairing your plant iron with a citrus fruit, you are probably not going to get much out of it. Heme iron found in red meat is already in a form that can be absorbed. For this reason, red meat is often recommended as a good way to increase your body’s iron stores if you have iron deficiency anemia.
There are also certain groups of people who are more prone to being iron deficient, including individuals with heavier menstrual cycles, pregnant people, those who are lactating, and people with certain gastrointestinal disorders, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. There have also been some case studies to suggest that certain individuals on acid suppressing drugs called proton pump inhibitors for extended periods of time might be at an increased risk as well, though much more research is needed to make any overall assertions.
While these groups of people need to be especially vigilant, Bonci says that anyone who chooses to give up red meat needs to compensate their iron intake. She says any other dark meat will contain easily absorbable iron as well, though often not quite as much as beef. She points out that animal liver is always a big source of iron, though not a type of meat that everyone absolutely loves. Organ meats in general are a great nutritious resource that many folks in the US are missing out on.
Other nutrients and vitamins found in red meat are also found in other meat products as well, and in substantial amounts, so it’s easier to make up for those by turning to other forms of animal protein. From a nutritional standpoint, Bonci says, as long as you are aware of what you are giving up and you are compensating accordingly, you should be okay. “Anytime you take something off the plate, you have to replace them. And that’s not what everybody remembers to do.”