A Meaty Debate: Can Meat Fit into a Healthy Diet?

benefits of eating meat

The meat debate is both complicated and divisive. Nutrition experts have sent mixed messages for years. The conversations are not only about meat’s direct health effects but also its environmental effects.

There are reasons to eat meat and to avoid it, but few people can agree on just what meat does for our bodies or how it affects the planet. Some people consider meat to be a fantastic source of nutrients, while others argue that it’s harmful to human health.

For every claim that meat might cure a chronic illness, there seems to be another claim implying that meat causes heart disease and cancer.

Some sources say meat is environmentally-friendly, and others say meat production contributes to deforestation.

This article attempts to untangle the meat debate from a health-based perspective and uncover the pros and cons of eating meat.

How different cultures define meat

Meat is the flesh and other edible parts of animals, such as mammals and birds, that humans prepare and consume.

In the United States and many other countries, the term “meat” mainly refers to the muscle tissue and fat of mammals and birds. But meat may also include other edible tissues, such as organs.

Offal — particularly liver, kidneys, brains, and intestines — has historically been eaten in most civilizations. However, it’s fallen out of favor in some parts of the West. Offal remains popular in various cultures throughout the world, particularly among traditional societies.

Many delicacies are also organ-based.

Foie gras is a traditional French specialty made from duck or goose liver. Sweetbreads comprise meat from the thymus gland and have been eaten in Europe since Roman times, and Menudo is a traditional meat dish in Mexico including beef stomach (tripe) and meat in broth.

Nowadays, meat is produced on farms. Most commercial meat products come from domesticated animals kept in huge industrial facilities that may house hundreds or even thousands of animals at once.

In some traditional societies, though, hunting animals is the only way to obtain meat.

Meat is generally eaten after it has been cooked, sometimes after being cured or smoked. It’s often eaten as steak, chops, ribs, or roast and can also be found in powdered or ground forms.

Meat can be cooked in or served with a sauce, condiment, or side dish, which may be dipped into the meat juices.

Meat is the flesh or organs of an animal consumed as food. In most parts of the world, it comes from animals raised on large industrial farms.

Types of meat we can eat

Meat is classified according to the animal from which it comes, as well as how it’s prepared.

Red meat

Red meat is higher than white meat in myoglobin, a protein that’s high in iron and found only in mammals. The following are some examples:

red meat
  • beef (cattle)
  • pork (pigs and hogs)
  • lamb
  • veal (calves)
  • goat
  • game, such as bison, elk, and venison (deer)

White meat

White meat refers to flesh that is light in color before and after cooking, as opposed to red meat. The phrase often includes all birds, even if their flesh appears red in reality, as in the case of duck meat. Other examples include:

  • chicken
  • turkey
  • goose
  • wild birds, such as quail and pheasant

Processed meat

The term “processed meat” refers to red or white meats that have been “treated” in some way. It might be preserved or enhanced in various forms, such as by salting, curing, smoking, drying, or other processes. Examples include:

  • hot dogs
  • sausage
  • bacon
  • luncheon (deli) meats, such as bologna, salami, and pastrami
  • jerky

Meat comes from animals and is classified as either red or white, depending on the source. Processed meats have been modified with additives to enhance flavor.

Reviewing the main nutrients in meat

Fresh meat is regarded as a valuable source of high quality protein.

When a protein contains all 9 amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that your body needs in adequate amounts, it’s thought to have high biological value and can be considered a complete protein.

After cooking, meat contains approximately 25–30% protein by weight.

A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked chicken breast contains about 31 grams of protein, while the same serving size from beef provides 27 grams.

Here’s a look at the nutritional content of a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of lean beef (2Trusted Source):

  • Calories: 205
  • Protein: about 27 grams
  • Riboflavin: 15% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Niacin: 24% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 19% of the DV
  • Vitamin B12: 158% of the DVIron: 16% of the DV
  • Phosphorus: 19% of the DV
  • Zinc: 68% of the DV
  • Selenium: 36% of the DV
  • Other muscle meats have similar nutrient profiles, although they contain less zinc.

Pork is particularly rich in thiamine. For example, pork chops provide 78% of the DV per 5.5-ounce (157-gram) serving (3Trusted Source).

Vitamin A, B12, iron, and selenium are present in significant amounts in liver and other organ meats. These meats are also excellent sources of choline, an important nutrient for brain, muscle, and liver health (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).

Meat is a rich source of protein and several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, niacin, and selenium.