The, “To Meat, or Not to Meat?” debate rages on, with ongoing disparity between findings in modern research. Books like, “The China Study,” and documentaries like the more recent, “The Game Changers,” are not objective science, they are elaborate opinion pieces fortified with research findings that support the authors’ positions. As with a host of controversial health topics today (calcium, cholesterol, low fat diets, butter, Vit E, anti-oxidants with chemotherapy, vaccines, salt, alcohol, coffee, chocolate…) it is nearly impossible to wade through all of the opposing views, and find the “truth.”

I don’t believe in universal dietary recommendations for human beings. I am a strong proponent of individualized recommendations for each individual or group of individuals.

We are always looking for universal “truths,” but in a world that is inherently subjective, this is a futile effort.

A recent report on 5 rigorous systematic reviews of the available randomized trial and observational study evidence surrounding the meat controversy gives what the authors call a “weak recommendation” to continue current consumption of both unprocessed and processed meat. One clear caveat that the researchers put forth early on is that, “considerations of environmental impact or animal welfare did not bear on the recommendations.” These recommendations are purely based on the available evidence regarding the impact of meat consumption on cardiovascular health and cancer outcomes, and most importantly, the authors’ reviews explicitly addressed the uncertainty of the underlying evidence.

This issue is not going to go away, and as someone who was vegetarian for 15 years, and vegan for 3 of those, I have been in the midst of the debate for a long time. Outside of the fact that the research, unanimously, is riddled with confounding variables and layers of uncertainty, there are some critical issues for me that need to be considered.

First and foremost is the issue that “meat” is not all created equal.

Many factors play into the health of meat, including:

Poor health practices:

  • Animal overcrowding in cage feeding lots leads to unhealthy animals
  • Overuse use of antibiotics
  • GMO grain feed
  • Poor animal treatment
  • Use of hormones
  • And even more terrible things like feeding animals their own body materials from previously butchered animals…

Better practices:

  • Free range
  • Pasture raised
  • Grass fed
  • No hormones
  • No antibiotics
  • Ample space for grazing and not overcrowded
  • Humane and compassionate practices throughout the shepherding process
  • Preserving meat quality with the use of proper curing practices, not by harvesting animals at a young age.
  • For meat consumption, there are some additional factors that are very important to me:

How is the meat prepared?

  • Overcooked meats produce carcinogens such as heterocyclic amines
  • Barbeque preparation often leads to burned portions
  • Seared, rare to medium rare preparation minimizes overcooking
  • Low temperature preparations (soups and stews) minimize overcooking
  • Processed meats should have no chemical additives (nitrites, sulfites, etc.)

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in analyzing trial data around this issue is that there are many additional diet and lifestyle choices that have been clearly associated with meat eating or being vegetarian/vegan that confound the issue of whether “meat” is the causative factor.

Some of these include:

  • Smoking (more common in omnivores, less in vegetarians)
  • Alcohol consumption (more in omnivores, less in vegetarians)
  • Exercise (vegetarians more likely to exercise more frequently)
  • Consumption of vegetables (vegetarians generally eat more vegetables)

Another recent paper assessed the impact of dietary choices on health outcomes. It looked at data from 195 countries over 18 years.

In summary:

“Although sodium, sugar, and fat have been the main focus of diet policy debate in the past two decades, our assessment shows that the leading dietary risk factors for mortality are diets high in sodium, low in whole grains, low in fruit, low in nuts and seeds, low in vegetables, and low in omega-3 fatty acids; each accounting for more than 2% of global deaths. This finding suggests that dietary policies focusing on promoting the intake of components of diet for which current intake is less than the optimal level might have a greater effect than policies only targeting sugar and fat, highlighting the need for a comprehensive food system interventions to promote the production, distribution, and consumption of these foods across nations.”

And to distill this down to even simpler terms – it’s more important to make sure we eating a whole food diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds, and omega 3 fatty acids, than it is to avoid poor food choices like eating sugar, processed meats, and “bad” fats. We have to be careful not to focus solely on eliminating “bad” food choices, and more importantly, we need to focus on making sure we include good food choices in our daily lives.

This issue becomes a major factor in the meat debate, along with personalized constitutional assessments which can help determine whether people might benefit from adding some high quality meat product to their diet, or not. I consider food as a form of medicine. Well prepared, clean meats and bone marrow broths can be powerfully restorative, especially in depleted individuals.

Beyond the health impacts of eating meat, of course there are a host of environmental considerations that are valuable and should be addressed. As with most things in life, it’s easy to fall in love with something and then want more of it than we need. In my “general” dietary recommendations I like to suggest a range of about 15-20% protein. In the clinic I see that most people are able to easily assimilate animal protein, and I see few allergies or sensitivities to meat products in testing.

At this point in my life, I’m not much for ascribing to strict policies, such as “I never eat meat,” but I have become a “free-rangitarian” who gets most of the meat he consumes from local farmer’s markets and from friends who raise animals, care for them, and take their lives with grace. My humble opinion is that meat is a form of spirit food. It should be used sparingly, and the life that it costs should be honored and respected.