Is Meat Bad for You? Experts Say, Yes

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The China Study" by Colin Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Is meat bad for you? And if so, why is meat bad for you? 

In numerous studies, meat has been shown to increase your risk of everything from obesity and diabetes to cancer. We’ll cover why Americans eat so much meat, what the research says, and answer the question, “Is eating meat bad for you?”

Our Infatuation with Meat

If meat is bad for you, why haven’t you heard about it?

We live in a country that prioritizes the profits of a few over the health of all. The food and drug industries, the medical institution, the government, and universities all play their parts in conducting research and setting dietary guidelines that maintain the status quo. It’s not that everyone in the American health system is corrupt. But the problem is systemic, and it puts the lives of Americans at risk.

Before we answer the question, “Is meat bad for you?”, let’s examine how meat came to dominate the American diet.

We think we need to eat meat because we need it for protein. But the truth is, we can get all the protein we need from a variety of plants. So why do we associate protein with animal foods? The outsize role played by animal proteins in our culture and our understanding of healthy eating has been formed by a little science and even more myths.

Attitudes About Meat

When protein was discovered in the 19th century, people already believed that eating animals increased their endurance and strength. Eating animals also symbolized our dominance over other creatures. Any evidence of the benefits of animal protein was welcome news to a society that took pride in its place at the top of the food chain. Further, meat was expensive. Consequently, it was a status symbol: Eating meat demonstrated that you were rich and relying on plant foods demonstrated that you were poor.

These attitudes helped make protein synonymous with meat, and we’ve inherited them, whether we realize it or not. Even today, beef is probably the first thing you think of when someone says “protein.” We still believe that people who don’t eat meat are anemic and weak and that animal protein is an essential part of a healthy diet.

Is Meat Bad for You? What Does the Research Say?

Hundreds of research studies suggest that meat is bad for you. The idea that our favorite meat-rich meals could be making us sick is a hard truth to face. Ultimately, diet is the most powerful medicine in the prevention and reversal of disease. Let’s look at why meat is bad for you in the case of particular diseases.

Why Is Meat Bad for You?

Meat and Cholesterol

Recent studies have shown that virtually any amount of cholesterol in the blood leads to disease. One reason meat is bad for you is that it increases your blood cholesterol levels.

In one study, plant foods were correlated with decreasing levels of blood cholesterol and animal foods were correlated with increasing levels of blood cholesterol.

Foods and nutrients that were shown to increase blood cholesterol included animal protein, fat, and foods like eggs, milk, meat, and fish. 

Of all the dietary factors, animal protein, like that in meat, had the strongest association with increased blood cholesterol. Eating saturated fat and cholesterol in foods also strongly increased levels, but not as dramatically as eating animal protein. Is meat bad for you? This study says yes.

So why were Chinese cholesterol levels so much lower than American cholesterol levels in the China Study? Because in rural China, people only eat an average of 7.1 grams of animal protein a day. That’s the amount of protein in three McDonald’s chicken nuggets. For comparison, in America, people eat an average of 70 grams of animal protein a day.

Researchers concluded that cutting down on animal proteins like meat was the most effective way to lower your blood cholesterol and, therefore, your risk of numerous diseases of affluence.

Meat and Heart Disease

Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn’s prescription of small amounts of cholesterol-lowering medication combined with a plant-based diet has gotten some of the best results ever recorded in the treatment of this disease. His studies suggest that meat is bad for you, especially combined with other risk factors for heart disease.

In a study he began in 1985, Esselstyn instructed his patients with advanced heart disease to avoid meat, fish, oil and most dairy products.

Results:

Over five years, cholesterol dropped from an average of 246 mg/dL to 132 mg/dL, far below the generally recommended 150 mg/dL target.

Clogged arteries opened in 70% of the patients, effectively reversing their disease.

In the eight years prior to the start of the study, the 18 participants had had a combined 49 coronary events, including bypass surgery, angioplasty, strokes, and heart attacks. But in the 11 years after the start of the study, there was only one coronary event among the 18 patients, and the patient who experienced that event had strayed from the dietary recommendations for two years. (When he started to experience chest pain, the single “coronary event” in the study, the patient went back to the plant-based diet and the chest pain disappeared.)

In contrast, the five participants who dropped out of the program near its start had a combined ten new coronary events in ten years.

17 years out, only one patient in the study had died. 25 years out, all but five of the original participants were still alive (and the five who passed hadn’t died from coronary heart disease).

In a larger study published in 2014, Esselstyn tracked 198 patients. 177 patients stuck to his dietary program. 21 did not. Over about four years, only one of the 177 compliant patients had a stroke. Among the 21 noncompliant patients, 62% suffered strokes.

Dr. Esselstyn’s results, <1% stroke rate versus 62%, seem to indicate that he’s found a cure to heart disease. However, many doctors still hesitate to seriously recommend that patients stop eating meat. In answer to the question, “Is meat bad for you?”, many doctors would say it’s not.

Meat and Weight Loss

Feeling hungry is one of the biggest reasons dieters fall off the wagon, but studies show that dieters may not feel hungry on a plant-based diet. This may be yet another reason that eating meat is bad for you.

Even when whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) study participants ate fewer calories, they were fuller than meat-eaters because they ate a larger volume of food. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are full of fiber, which keeps you feeling satisfied.

Some studies show that WFPB participants eat more calories than meat-eaters. But they’re still slimmer. Plant-eaters have a higher resting metabolism, meaning they burn more calories as heat rather than storing them as body fat. Is meat bad for you? It could be if you’re trying to lose weight.

Meat and Diabetes

Multiple studies indicate that a plant-based diet can prevent, treat, and even cure Type 2 diabetes.

Seventh-Day Adventist Studies

We can observe the possible effects of a plant-based diet on diabetes risk by studying Seventh-day Adventists, whose religion advises they avoid meat, fish, and eggs, among other foods and drinks.

Consequently, a relatively high percentage (50%) of Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarians. The other half still eats meat, but less than the average American.

Still, vegetarian Adventists in these studies had half the rate of diabetes and almost half the rate of obesity. Another reason meat is bad for you — it may increase your risk of diabetes and obesity.

Controlled Studies—Diet as Cure Rather Than Prevention

The Seventh-day Adventist studies were observational studies. Observational studies are those in which researchers observe the effect of a risk factor without trying to control who is exposed to the risk factor and who’s not.

While observational studies provide important information, they don’t always indicate as clear a cause-and-effect relationship as controlled studies.

Numerous controlled studies have studied people who already have diabetes. In these studies, researchers modify the participants’ diets and measure the effects on the disease.

For instance, one experiment involved both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes patients. None of the participants were overweight. They all ate a high-fiber, high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. The diet was mostly plant-based, allowing for one or two cold cuts of meat a day.

Results:

  • After three weeks on the mostly plant-based, high-fiber diet, Type 1 patients could lower their insulin medication by 40% and their cholesterol levels decreased by 30%.
  • 24 of the 25 Type 2 patients were able to stop their insulin medication altogether.

Results like these have been replicated in numerous studies. Is meat good or bad for you? These studies suggest it’s unhealthy.

Meat and Breast Cancer

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been shown to increase your breast cancer risk by 26-30%. Further, while HRT does seem to help protect against bone fractures and colorectal cancer in later life, some studies suggest it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. But what does this have to do with meat?

Eating meat may increase your need for HRT. There may be a healthier alternative to HRT—eating plants.

Eating a plant-based diet can help smooth the transition into menopause. When women go through menopause, their reproductive hormones decline to a base level. The steepness of this decline may dictate how severe your menopause symptoms are.

Because plant-eaters have lower levels of these hormones throughout their reproductive years, the drop to base level is less dramatic than for meat-eaters. Therefore, plant-eaters experience fewer menopause symptoms. Eating meat increases your female hormone levels, which can increase your risk of breast cancer and a rocky transition to menopause. This might mean meat is bad for you especially if you’re a female.

In summary, is meat bad for you? Many studies say it is. Why is meat bad for you? It increases your cholesterol levels, weight, and hormone levels, which are factors in a variety of diseases.

Is Meat Bad for You? Experts Say, Yes

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "The China Study" at Shortform. Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less.

Here's what you'll find in our full The China Study summary:

  • Why animal proteins (meat, milk) might cause cancer, diabetes, and other diseases
  • Why the medical institution is structured to hide the truth about disease and food
  • The precise diet you'll need to eat to live longer and feel happier

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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