Is meat bad for you?

Whether it’s sausages sizzling on the BBQ, a fillet steak that takes pride of place on a restaurant menu, or the chicken fillets you buy every week without fail, there’s no denying that meat forms a major part of the standard Western diet.

Yet, it feels like each week there’s a new headline creating confusion on whether you should or shouldn’t be eating it. So, I’m biting the bullet and diving into this question – Is meat bad for you?

For some people, a meal simply isn’t complete unless it comes with a serving of meat. In fact, in the US, the average person eats around 124 kilos of meat a year. And in the UK? The average amount of it eaten per person is 220 grams a day, approximately double the world average.


To put all that into perspective, according to the NHS, we should be limiting our intake of red and processed meat to around 70g (cooked weight) a day. That’s the equivalent of either two rashers of bacon, or one-third of an 8oz sirloin steak, or one and a half pork sausages.


However much meat you eat, you’ve likely seen the headlines debating its effect on our health. On the one hand, good quality meat in moderation can be a good source of protein, iron and vitamins E, B2, B6, and B12 – and important for weight loss and metabolic health.


On the other, some meats are high in saturated fat and linked with an increased risk of cancer (more on that later).


So, is meat ‘bad’, even when eaten in moderation? The answer isn’t a clear-cut yes or no, it never is with nutrition. (And I don’t recommend labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anyway.)


Frequency, quantity and quality matter – as well as the rest of your diet and lifestyle too. Meat quality depends on lots of factors, from how it’s farmed and how it’s cooked, to the type and cut you’re eating. Let’s look at that in a little more detail…


Factory v regenerative farming and the impact on meat quality

You might not think too much about the journey your meat has taken before it lands on your plate, but it may be one of the most important things to consider – and I invite you to use this blog as an opportunity to consider it.


You’re probably familiar with factory farming. It’s an intensive method of rearing livestock for their meat, under strictly controlled and often cramped conditions. It’s been criticised for its impact on animal welfare and significantly contributing to the climate crisis. At Integral Wellness, we do not support this approach to farming.


Factory-farmed meat can be worse for our health than regeneratively farmed. One reason? Factory farming tends to see a higher use of antibiotics – although thankfully this has recently dropped in the UK considerably. Another reason? The feed is not the animal’s natural diet. Within factory or industrial farms, animals are often fed unhealthy diets that can contain anything from corn and soy to candy (yes, really) which understandably will affect the quality of the meat that ends up on your plate.


Add to that, factory-farmed animals are often kept in environments that can contribute to high levels of stress for these animals, which is also said to result in meat that is lower in several key vitamins and fatty acids.


It’s important to mention here that research shows farmed meat still contains beneficial nutrients for human health and development. If this is what’s within reach for you, it’s better for your health than swapping for a processed ‘alternative meat’, which we’ll mention later. This blog merely illustrates the difference between farming methods and the impact that has on quality so you can make an informed choice.

Regenerative farming, on the other hand, is a more sustainable approach that focuses on soil health, improved animal welfare and the full cycle of farming (not just meat – see image).

Typically, regenerative beef comes from cattle that have grazed on real grass with rich soil, which results in happier, healthier cows and therefore more nutritious meat. The same applies to all animals that are properly free-range, pasture-raised.

Image source: BusinessWales.Gov. Confirmed and potential impacts of regenerative grazing practices taken from Spratt et al. (2021).

In fact, compared to grass-fed animals, meat from factory-farmed livestock has less vitamin E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. In short? Your first port of call should be considering how your meat is raised because we consume the health of that animal.

(As a previous chicken owner, there is nothing better than free-range healthy happy hen eggs!).

Red meat and cancer: what’s the link?

At some point or another, you may have come across the claim that red meat causes cancer, and yes, there is some scientific backing to that claim. Research conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015, for example, found that regularly eating red meat “probably increases” your risk of colorectal cancer.


However, evidence to support red meat as a carcinogen is pretty limited and some reports suggest that these risks can be mitigated by eating a high-fibre diet – fibre is known for supporting colon health


It’s also important to note that there is a greater cancer risk with processed kinds of red meat – think bacon (due to nitrites), ham (often reformed), canned meats (step away from the spam), and hot dogs (which rarely contain much meat at all!) – compared to unprocessed red meats like steak, lamb shanks, or pork chops.


Another factor in the red-meat-cancer equation? How your food is cooked. Cooking meat at high temperatures has been linked to the formation of cancer-causing compounds.


See, BBQing, grilling, and roasting meat at high temperatures can create heterocyclic aromatic amines, which are known carcinogens. Add to that, when BBQing, meat juices can drip onto the coals and flare up flames and smoke, creating another type of carcinogen known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.


Given all that, pan-frying meat on a medium heat with a little olive oil is sometimes thought of as the healthier option. But know this: When exposed to high temperatures common cooking oils, like sunflower or vegetable oil for example (since when did vegetables contain oil by the way?), may release chemicals known as aldehydes, which are also linked to cancer.


So what’s the solution? It’s clear the original fear of red meat lacks nuance and context. Our advice? Cook at lower temperatures as much as possible, let flames die down before placing meat on a grill, and consider marinating your meat before cooking – a practice that may reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines. 


Additionally, don’t blame the animal for things humans are doing. Animals want pasture and outdoor living. If they get given something different we cannot blame them for a poorer quality of meat; nor are they responsible for how we process and cook the meat.


I’m a big fan of the phrase, ‘It’s not the cow, it’s the how’.


And on that note, there’s some interesting research into how cows can be carbon-neutral when farmed regeneratively. Here’s an easy-to-read write-up of that study.


The bottom line…

The conversation about the potential health effects and environmental impact of eating meat remains contested, complex and often fueled by emotion which I understand – food and animals are emotive topics. And people understandably have strong opinions about how ‘bad’ meat is for you and the environment. 


Research published in 2021 found that daily meat consumption in the UK had fallen by 17% in the decade prior, a change that may have been impacted by the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarianism, as well as trends like Meat-free Monday. While this can be a positive move for many reasons, there is a complexity around obtaining optimal levels of key nutrients on a solely plant-based diet and this must be considered. (I’ll save this for another blog as vegetarian diet and vegan diets when done correctly, can work).


If meat has always formed a significant part of your diet, it may be hard to imagine a life without it. Fortunately, you don’t have to go cold turkey, pun intended. 


If you want to make a healthier choice, take a look at where and how your food is raised – remember we consume the health of the animal so quality matters. The price is higher (at the moment) for grass-fed, grass-finished meat which may mean you naturally eat slightly less overall and fill your plate with other nutritious whole foods for variety and diversity.


Also, aim to cut back on processed and ultra-processed meats and choose lean cuts. Don’t be afraid to experiment with meat-free protein sources, like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, as alternatives as well. But be cautious of the ultra-processed meat alternatives as these are no healthier than processed meats – and potentially worse!


Choosing whether or not to eat meat, which type and where to buy it is a personal choice that should be respected. If you still want to include it in your diet, remember this rule of thumb:

Buy regeneratively farmed, cook at lower temperatures, and eat with respect to the animal. 

Where Natalie shops

Natalie buys her meat either from an online butcher or a regenerative farmer. The online butcher, Swaledale, is located in the Yorkshire Dales and works with local respectable farmers to provide a nose-to-tail approach to consumption. 


This is what is meant by respect for the animal. We used to eat organ meats (offal) and use the bones for bone broth as these are some of the most nutrient-dense parts of the animal which it gifts to us for our nourishment. Finding new ways to incorporate these flavours and nutrients into our cooking can be a game changer for our health.


Natalie tried the Nutritionist’s Meat Box from Swaledale. She used the bones to make a bone broth which was used as a stock to add to chilli, bolognese, soups, and stews. The liver was cooked and blended and then refrozen for stock cubes for similar dishes. By doing it this way, the vitamins and minerals get consumed, the offal goes undetected and the whole animal is used and therefore respected.

If this has made you think about how to get smarter with your food shop, then why not check out some other recommened brands.

We showcase brands and businesses that are putting your health at the forefront on our Shop webpage - and get you discounts where we can.