Red meat is defined as meat that comes from adult mammals that look reddish in colour before it’s cooked. This includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, goat and horse.
Deciding if you should cut back on eating red meat for health reasons will depend on the amount you currently eat. It is currently recommended that you eat 2-3 palm sized portions of locally-produced fresh unprocessed red meat per week. If you are not eating more than this amount you do not need to cut back for health reasons, although may want to do so for environmental reasons or personal beliefs.
Should I cut back on eating red meat?
There are several benefits to cutting down on the amount of red meat you eat in your diet if you are eating too much. If you choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet you may need to replace the protein and iron lost from not eating meat. Learn more about creating a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet.
A decrease in the risk of heart disease
Red meat has more cholesterol, a type of fat found in blood, and saturated fat than white meat (such as poultry like chicken and turkey). Cholesterol and saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol, which contributes to the development and worsening of heart disease.
When the body is digesting red meat, it releases a compound called trimethylamine N-Oxide (TMAO). The higher level of TMAO in the body, the higher the chances are for blood clots to occur in your arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
A decrease in the risk of cancer
The risk of cancer from eating red meat and processed meat only applies to those who eat more than the recommended weekly amounts.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has categorised red meats as a level 2a carcinogen, this means that it can probably cause cancer in humans. Their classification was based on “limited evidence” and focused on people developing colon cancer from eating red meat.
The World Health Organisation also classified processed meat in Group 1, causing cancer to humans. This classification was based on “sufficient evidence” from a study on the relationship between eating processed meat and colon cancer. Smoking tobacco is also classified in Group 1, but this does not mean that processed meat is as equally dangerous. The grouping classifies the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent, such as tobacco or processed meat, being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.
From the limited evidence available, colon cancer is the type of cancer which is most likely caused by eating too much red meat, followed by pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Red meat that is cooked at high temperatures, such as barbecued meats which can be burnt on the outside, produces more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals. If this is eaten in excessive amounts it can increase the risk of cancer over a person’s lifetime.
A decrease in the risk of obesity
Eating more than 5 ounces of red meat per day is associated with a 27% higher risk of obesity and a 33% higher risk of central obesity. Central obesity is when a person has excessive fat around their stomach and abdomen. If you are eating over the recommended amount of red meat a week, cutting down can decrease your risk of obesity.
Environmental benefits of cutting down on eating red meat
A decrease in greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions refer to the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere. The higher the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, the worse it is for climate change. Agriculture is responsible for 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland and about half of this is due to cows. This is very high even by international standards. Compared to cultivating staples such as potatoes, wheat, and rice, keeping livestock produces 11 times more greenhouse gasses.
The reason it is high is due to the number of cows in Ireland. When cows belch they emit a particular greenhouse gas called Methane with is very potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere. It is about 28 times more potent than CO2 which comes from burning fossil fuel.
Decrease in deforestation
Thousands of square kilometres of forests and trees are destroyed every year for the purposes of grazing pastures, which is land where cattle feed. This has a negative effect on the environment, as trees absorb CO2 and convert it into the oxygen we breathe. When deforestation happens, the CO2, which these trees store, gets released into the atmosphere, causing higher levels of greenhouse gasses.
By not keeping livestock, less land will be needed for them, and this could reduce the levels of emissions being released into the atmosphere. Compared to other farmed foods such as potatoes, wheat, and rice, keeping cattle requires 160 times more land. Livestock grazing takes up 26% of Earth’s ice-free land.
If you choose to cut out red meat completely from your diet or to cut down what is important when buying your groceries is that you choose food that is locally sourced and sustainably produced.
Want to make a more informed decision about the food you eat? Calculate the impact the food you eat has on the environment.