This is, and always will be, a wholly plant-based blog. However, anyone on a mostly plant-based diet might still be concerned about the red meat vs white meat debate.
So, if you’re among them, this post is for you!
The usual argument in favor of white meat is that red meats such as beef, pork, and lamb are higher in fat and heme iron. Ground beef, for example, is nearly 19 percent total fat. And more than one-third of that (7 percent) is saturated.
Chicken, fish, and other white meats are lower in fat. White chicken meat weighs in at 10 percent total fat and 3 percent saturated.
Red Meat Vs White Meat: the Heme Iron Difference
While we may absorb the heme iron in meat better than the non-heme iron in plant foods, there’s a serious downside.
Multiple studies have linked heme iron to an increased risk of several cancers, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease. One led by researchers at China’s Zhengzhou University College of Public Health concluded:
“Higher dietary intake of heme iron was associated with a greater risk of CVD mortality.”
What meats contain the most heme iron?
According to a database developed by NIH, USDA, and the Yale School of Public Health:
“Steak and hamburgers contained the highest levels of heme iron, pork and chicken thigh meat had slightly lower levels, and chicken breast meat had the lowest. Red meat is the largest dietary source of heme iron.”
Red Meat Vs White Meat: Cancer Risk
In 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen. That translates as “Probably Carcinogenic to Humans (their 2nd-highest rating for cancer risk).
After reviewing over 800 studies, The IARC said there was sufficient evidence correlating red-meat consumption with colorectal cancer and some evidence linking it to pancreatic and prostate cancers.
The most persuasive evidence “came from large prospective cohort studies.”
In 2021, red meat remains on their list of cancer-linked foods, along with:
- Group 1, carcinogenic to humans: Processed meats (hot dogs, sausages, ham, beef jerky)
- Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans: Pickled vegetables
- Group 3, carcinogenicity not classifiable: Coffee and tea
Notice what’s missing?
White meat is nowhere on the list!
When asked in an interview with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health if red meat still had a place in a healthy, balanced diet, IARC team member and Harvard senior research scientist Kana Wu responded:
“… many studies have also shown that high consumption of red meat can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, and may lead to higher risk of dying of those diseases (when compared to other good sources of protein, such as poultry, fish or legumes).”
In other words, the available evidence led the researchers to conclude that white meats like poultry and fish are healthier than red meats.
One of the extensive prospective studies accounting for their findings followed 478,040 men and women from 10 European countries.
At the time of enrollment, all were cancer-free. After a 4.8 year follow-up, 1,329 had developed colorectal cancer.
The IARC team examined the participant’s consumption of:
- red meat
- processed meat
and fish with the risk of colon cancer. Their findings?
- Regular fish consumption led to a one-third lower risk.
- Regular chicken consumption neither lowered nor raised the risk.
- Regular red meat consumption led to a one-third higher risk.
Or, in their words:
“Our data confirm that colorectal cancer risk is positively associated with high consumption of red and processed meat and support an inverse association with fish intake.”
The Red Meat vs White Meat Data Keeps Coming
A similar U.S. study followed 148,610 adults, of whom 1,667 developed colorectal cancer during its course. Its researchers also linked red meat consumption with colon cancer while finding no link between chicken and fish’s long-term consumption.
And only last month, this meta-analysis study headed by Naples’ Frederico II University Department of Clinical Medicine and Surgery reviewed the evidence on the health risks of white-meat consumption.
They excluded fish but included chicken, turkey, duck, goose, and rabbit. After referencing 14 studies demonstrating that red and processed meats raised the risk of all-cause death, they asked if white meat does the same.
Their results showed a 6% lower all-cause mortality between eating the most and the least white meat! They acknowledged one difficulty in determining the reason for the difference:
“The interpretation of the effects of white meat consumption on health is a difficult task, as subjects consuming white meat are, at the same time, consuming less red meat.”
Yet they still concluded:
“These findings highlight the importance of differentiating the meat types and suggest that white meat might be a ‘healthy’ alternative to red and processed meat consumption.”
The overwhelming balance of evidence leads most nutritional scientists to choose a clear winner in the red meat vs white meat debate: white meat is healthier than red meat. But does that mean white meat qualifies as genuinely healthy?
This week brought the publication of another large study asking that very question. Check-in tomorrow for my review!