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What's your beef with red meat?

Hall Training Systems

It’s 2015 and that time of year where we feel we need to turn over a new leaf and start a fresh. Fitness and diet are often the areas people turn to when they wish to feel better. Diet especially is a big one and it’s not uncommon to hear people wanting to eliminate certain food groups to help ‘detox’ after a gluttonous Christmas. Red meat is often one of the first foods to go even more so with its constant media attention throughout 2014.

Everyone has heard the rumours about red meat – how it can cause high blood pressure and cancer, as well as ruin any serious diet attempt. Over the last few decades, hundreds of studies have been carried out to test the validity of these claims. Here at Hall Training Systems we’ve been wading through them, hoping to work out once and for all if red meat deserves its bad reputation. Here’s what we found:

Does red meat cause high blood pressure?
Compared to white meat, the sodium levels in red meat are high, leading to claims that red meat consumption can cause high blood pressure, or hypertension. We don’t believe this is true. A study published just this summer looked at 44,616 disease-free French women between 1993 and 2008, hoping to establish a link between red meat consumption and high blood pressure.
Women who consumed less than five 100g servings of unprocessed red meat per week had no significant risk of developing high blood pressure, even when compared to women who only ate one serving per week.

This wasn’t the end of the story though, and this is where it becomes important to draw a distinction between processed and unprocessed red meat. The women who consumed more than five 50g servings of processed meat had a 17% higher rate of high blood pressure than those who consumed less than one serving per week[1]. This is quite an increase! So, while there is an increased risk of blood pressure with meat consumption, this is only caused by poor quality or processed meat, red meat itself is not to blame.

Is there a link between red meat and cancer?
It is notoriously difficult to analyse the affect of red meat in isolation. Known causes of cancer include a high intake of refined sugars and alcohol, a low intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre, low physical activity, a high prevalence of smoking and a high BMI. All of these aspects are typical of a western lifestyle, as is red meat consumption.

We’re sure you’ve all heard of studies in which red meat is linked to increase risk of cancer, and it’s true – they do exist. However, the correlations found often show tiny risk. In 2010, a group of researchers evaluated 35 recent studies, and found that the relative risk was not statistically significant, and averaged at a 1.5% increased risk with regular red meat consumption. “Meat consumption and cancer has been evaluated in hundreds of epidemiologic studies over the past three decades; however, the possible role of this food group on carcinogens is equivocal,” they concluded[2].

But again, there’s a different tale to tell when it comes to processed meat. A study published in 2013 tracked incidences of colorectal cancer in 6060 participants, and found a strong link between many types of processed meat and cancer. Bacon and sausages, alongside salami, hot dogs and ham, were some of the meats that were tracked.

Surprisingly, sausages were not associated with any raised risk, and bacon was inversely associated with the cancer sites studied, which is is good news for our Full English fry-ups! Salami and hot dogs didn’t fare so well – both showed links with various sites, and particularly gastric cancer, while ham was associated with nearly all of the cancer sites studied[3].
Although it is still unknown precisely why processed meat should cause cancer, it has been suggested that the presence of salt and certain amines and nitrates could be to blame. As with hypertrophy, red meat seems to have an undeserved reputation.

What about weight gain?
The part red meat plays in nutrition has never been clear-cut, but we recommend red meat to all our clients. Compared to other forms of protein, animal proteins have a fantastic nutrient profile, offering nutrients that are not readily available in other food types. These include Creatine, Glycine and Vitamin B12, to mention just a few!

Various studies have also shown that increasing protein intake can actually reduce calorie intake overall, as protein makes you feel fuller, and reduces hunger. It’s crucial to keep up protein levels to maintain lean muscle mass, and build further muscle. A 2009 study in the British Journal of Nutrition compared the muscle mass index of 21 female omnivores to 19 female vegetarians, all of whom were healthy, but none of whom were active individuals. On average they found that the omnivorous women had 23kg of muscle mass, compared to 18kg in the vegetarians, even though both groups were consuming the same amount of protein – that’s a 5kg increase and just goes to show the vital role of animal protein[4]!

Furthermore, there’s no real reason to think that red meat will cause weight gain. Sixty-one overweight women were split into two groups by researchers, and randomly assigned chicken or lean beef as their main source of protein. They were also given a twelve-week light exercise programme to follow. At the end of the twelve weeks, both groups showed big drops in their body fat percentage, but more importantly, there was no significant difference between the two groups. Red meat didn’t hinder their weight loss at all[5].

So, is red meat bad for us?
The short answer is no: there’s no significant link between red meat and cancer or high blood pressure, and it has great benefits for those wishing to increase their muscle mass, energy levels and mood. High quality, grass-fed red meat should be a staple part of everyone’s diet. Processed meat however, is another matter and is best limited to 2-3 servings per week.

[1] Lajous, M. et al . (2014). Processed and unprocessed red meat consumption and hypertension in women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 100 (3), p948-952.
[2] Alexander, D. and Cushing, C. (2011). Red meat and colorectal cancer: a critical summary of prospective epidemiologic studies. Obesity Reviews. 12 (5), p e472-493.
[3] De Stevani, E. et al. (2013). Processed meat consumption and risk of cancer: a multisite case-control study in Uruguay. British Journal of Cancer. 107 (9), p1584-1588.
[4] Lehevdre, M. and Alderereutz, H. (2009). Relationship between animal protein intake and muscle mass in healthy women. British Journal of Nutrition. 102 (12), p1803-1810.
[5] Melanson, K. et al. (2003). Weight loss and total lipid profile changes in overweight women consuming beef or chicken as the primary protein source. Nutrition. 19 (9), p409-414.

About Chris Hall
As the founder of Hall Training Systems, it is my mission to provide you with the very best personal training experience. I set up Hall Training Systems as Oxford's leading personal training service in nutrition, performance and weight loss, ensuring I can deliver the very best in training techniques.
You can find me on Facebook, Google+ or why not even give us a Tweet @Hall_Training

Posted on 30th December 2014, 13:42 PM by Chris HallReport this post
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Comments (1)

As a clinical laboratory scientist I totally agree with your statements. It is unfortunate that a lot of information is put out there that is either inaccurate or based on one study that was performed. Most people do not know how studies or clinical trials are done (they are conducted usually with limited measured parameters). Beef is one of the best sources of protein!

Posted on 15th January 2015, 20:40 PM by Report this commentAdd image
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