In Old English times, the term “meat” meant any edible food. During the medieval period this definition narrowed to only land animals. This inevitably arose out of religious dictums forbidding consumption of certain land animals on particular days of observance. Some maintain that definition today and some take it a step further, employing the term “meat” to denote only red meat, e.g., beef or lamb. It’s astounding how arbitrary our definitions of things are. Even more fascinating, a capricious definition, as opposed to the true nature of the entity, can wield tremendous influence over peoples’ reaction to it. Somehow society has generated a conception of red meat as bad and white meat as good. The pork industry, endeavoring to capitalize on this misguided, health-crazed vilification of red meat, now purports pork as the “new white meat”.
By definition, meat is animal flesh, any animal, particularly its muscular tissue. I emphasize the muscular structure because with the exception of organ meats, when you eat beef, chicken, pork, lamb, venison, fish, snails, crabs, or even a rattlesnake, you are consuming the muscular structure of that animal.
Nevertheless, current dichotomous thinking distinguishes “meat” from non-meat by color. Red meat is red because of myoglobin, an iron containing protein that transfers oxygen from the blood to the muscles of the animal. Muscles which are used more will contain more myoglobin, (since they require more oxygen), and will be redder or darker in color. Take chicken for example. A chicken uses its legs far more than its breast muscles and hence, they are darker. Moreover, there are different kinds of myoglobin and some are redder than others. pH, (a measure of acidity vs. alkalinity), also affects meat color. Beef is redder than pork because of the amount and types of myoglobin and the pH. And these chemical differences are not good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.
For those that define “meat” as only red meat, color is only the surface discriminator. The underlying differentiator is usually fat content and cardiovascular health. The whole fat issue and its relation to health is a complex web whose spider is fat-phobia. There are many types of fats, (polyunsaturated, saturated, monosaturated, trans fatty acids, etc.), which in turn have a variety of effects on the body. The average person doesn’t take the time to learn all the details. It’s easier to just lump “fat” into one generic concept and then avoid it like the plague, hence, fat-phobia.
Polyunsaturated fat, monosaturated fat, and Omega-3 fatty acids have been purported to reduce cholesterol, and possibly prevent cancer and lower blood pressure. Saturated fat is the fat that can raise cholesterol levels.
Thus, it is not the fat content per se of any particular meat that is important, but the amount of saturated fat. According to a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, (Vol. 159, June 28, 1999, p. 1331-1338), subjects consuming lean red meat and subjects consuming only white meat, had no differences in their cholesterol levels. This was because the discrepancy in their saturated fat intake was too small to make a difference on their serum cholesterol levels. (Three ounces of round steak has about 3 grams of saturated fat while three ounces of skinless chicken breast has one).
On a grander scale was a meta-analysis by Harvard researchers. They reviewed 20 studies involving over 1.2 million people from 10 countries, and found no increase in risk for heart disease amongst those who consumed unprocessed red meat, namely, raw, unadulterated beef, lamb or pork. The hot dog, bacon, and lunch meat crowd however, did not fare as well. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/processed-meats-unprocessed-heart-disease-diabetes/
In any event, while some cuts of meat are higher in saturated fat, all red meat is high in protein, iron, B vitamins, zinc, choline, and selenium, a mineral implicated in preventing cancer and improving cardiovascular health. Ounce for ounce beef has twice the thiamine and riboflavin, three times the iron, five times the zinc, and seven times the B12 of chicken. Beef also contains conjugated linoleic acid, (CLA), which has inhibited cancer growth in laboratory animals. Half of the fat in beef is monosaturated fat, (like olive oil), which has been hailed as having many health benefits. Less than half of the total fat in beef is saturated fat and one third of it is stearic acid, a particular saturated fat that has no effect on cholesterol.
Now granted, if your goal is to lose weight, all fats are equally high in calories. Even I would recommend leaner cuts and in moderation. But if your concern is heart disease, keep in mind though that numerous other factors, other than fat, play a role. Most physicians agree that genetic makeup is a significant determinant. Some people’s biochemistry will produce higher amounts of cholesterol no matter what they eat. Conversely, we all know individuals who have ate rich diets, engaged in other risky practices and lived to a ripe old age. Genes are a whimsical and unfair bestowment of fate.
Genetics aside, your age, sex, physical activity, stress, weight, substance use, environmental pollutants, personality, and other medical conditions, all influence whether you’ll be visiting a cardiologist someday. Yet I’ve met individuals who ignore many controllable factors, who smoke or drink to excess, and yet incessantly monitor their dietary fat. Unfortunately, all the fish and vegetables in the world will not save you if genetics are not on your side and you’re ignoring all of the other variables.
In summary, our beliefs about certain foods, which in turn drive our behaviors, are often arbitrarily influenced by socio-cultural factors, dietary fads, advertising, misinformation, ignorance, etc. Although excessive fat consumption may pose some health risks, our society has elevated its malevolence to a disproportionate degree. Meat is not poison. It is a nutritious food that can be salubriously consumed in moderation.