Doctors have long been warning against red meat because it contributes to heart disease, but a University of California study published in December also links it to cancer. The study identifies the culprit as the sugar Neu5Gc, which is found in most mammals, especially in sources of red meat (cows, lamb, deer, sheep, etc.), but not in humans. Humans, unlike most other carnivores, cannot process the sugar, meaning that their immune systems have to generate antibodies to try to break the molecule down after consumption. This constant antibody-production can cause chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer. In short, the more animals containing Neu5Gc a person eats, the higher his/her chance of developing cancer.
While the study’s findings are tentative and require further research, there are many other health consequences to eating red meat. As is commonly known, red meat’s high saturated fat content raises blood cholesterol levels, which can prevent the heart from getting sufficient blood and oxygen. The compound carnitine, which is associated with meat’s red color, has been known to have a similar, artery-clogging, effect that often leads to heart attacks. Other, non-heart-related, conditions have also been connected to red meat consumption outlined by two studies from 2013. The first, from the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that eating red meat heightens the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, a chronic condition resulting from damage to the body’s ability to metabolize sugar. The second was published by the University of California Los Angeles and ties the development of Alzheimer’s disease to high levels of iron, which red meat is rich in. Of course, iron shouldn’t be cut out of diets entirely – just not consumed in excess.
So, from a health (as well as environmental – more on that next week) perspective, there is no reason to eat red meat; yet people, myself included, still do. Personally, I know that my body doesn’t need it, since there are plenty of healthier, more sustainable sources of protein and nutrients that could take meat’s place in my diet. I also have a very broad, vegetable-appreciating palate, so I know that I could be happy as a vegetarian or even just eating non-red meats and fish. I don’t even eat that much red meat anymore – so, why do I do it at all? The answer is simple and unjustifiable: I like it. All of the aforementioned considerations have made me very conscious of my beef consumption, which is why I limit it and make myself go vegetarian for a day for every time I have beef – but the fact is that I have never made an effort to eliminate it from my diet completely. I’m not trying to excuse myself but rather comfort my fellow red meat-eaters who feel guilty for their choice but not enough to do something about it. If you aren’t willing to give up brisket and venison, at least try to cut down on how much you eat. I would much rather live a longer, healthier life with the occasional steak than become diabetic and suffer a heart attack at age 40 due to too many burgers.
Let’s make red meat less of a staple in our diets and more of a rare (very deliberate pun) treat.