Eating meat –– of the right kind and in the right amount –– will help you gain strength & health. On the other hand, eating too much meat will defeat your strength and health goals.
Before I get into the nutritional benefits of meat, and the hazards of too much meat, let me say something very clearly:
Yeah, I know you might have trouble believing that, since the powers that be have put a lot of energy into convincing you that meat is the most harmful food known to man.
Nevertheless, research does not support the claim that eating lean meat promotes cardiovascular disease or cancer. However, fatty meat is questionable.
The current body of evidence indicates that the degree of association between red and processed meat consumption and all-cause mortality and adverse cardiometabolic outcomes and the possible absolute effects of red and processed meat consumption on cardiovascular and cancer mortality are very small, and the evidence of such a link has a low to very low certainty.1, 2
Total red meat intake of more than 35 g daily of red meat has no influence on blood lipids or blood pressure.3
All the propaganda warnings against red meat is based on weak epidemiological studies, which are based on dietary surveys via food frequency questionnaires, which gather reports of memories of perceptions of food intake, which is not empirical evidence. To collect objective empirical evidence requires measuring actual dietary intake – for example actually weighing what people eat – not asking people to guess quantities based on memories of perceptions, which have been shown to be highly unreliable and incongruent with actual intakes and even inconsistent with basic requirements for life. Consequently, studies asserting “links” of this sort are pseudo-science and create a fictional narrative regarding nutrition and health.4, 5
Let's clear something else out of the way:
This graphic explains why cow burps and farts are not by any stretch of imagination similar to carbon emissions released by combustion of fossil fuels.
Now that we've cleared the air, let's get to how eating meat supports strength and health.
"The five grains are used to nourish, the five fruits to assist, the five animals to fortify, the five vegetables to fulfill."
––The Yellow Emperor's Internal Medicine Classic
Meat is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. It contains all essential amino acids and fatty acids, along with essential vitamins and minerals. All the nutrients are highly bioavailable, and meat is easily digested with little or no residue. Three studies have reported that red meat protein is 90-94% digested, which is as high as milk proteins.6, 7, 8 All other proteins have a lower digestibility. Legume proteins are generally only 63-74% digestible.9
Red meat has a high quality of protein (Table 1).
One of my Chinese medical nutrition textbooks, Chinese Dietary Therapy, states:
"The meat of animals is mostly mild in nature and nutritious and can enrich Qi and Blood, or reinforce the Liver and Kidney. Some internal organs such as the liver, heart, stomach, lung, kidney, brain, and spinal cord are also used for food and these organs have different effects. Broadly speaking, they can nourish corresponding organs in the human body. This is the general principle of TCM in the treatment of human organ illnesses. In addition, bird's eggs are also effective in nourishing the Blood, Qi and the Kidney."
Even absent exercise, eating beef stimulates muscle protein synthesis in subjects of all ages.10, 11 A 113 g serving of beef providing 30 g of beef protein increases muscle protein synthesis by about 50% in both young and older subjects; however, increasing the beef serving to 340 g does not improve the response.12
Therefore if you want to get the greatest anabolic response from eating meat, the best strategy may be to eat moderate portions (100-150 g meat provides 25-30 g protein) at each sitting. Eating larger portions apparently results in the valuable protein being converted to carbohydrate rather than being used for muscle protein synthesis.
Beef also supports the post-exercise rise in muscle protein synthesis more effectively than a soybean-based meat replacement supplying the same amount of nitrogen (protein).13 We expect this since beef has a higher quality of protein than soy (Table 1).
A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that consuming beef protein in conjunction with resistance training produced similar improvements in lean mass and fat mass to using whey protein, and was more effective than no additional protein for increasing lower-limb muscle strength.14
Pork protein (30 g) stimulates an increase in muscle protein synthesis similar to cows’ milk whey protein.15
Eating chicken instead of beef or whey protein produces similar strength and lean mass gains.21
Fish consumption produced lean mass gains superior to and strength gains similar to casein (milk protein) in older adults.22
In short you can use meat from mammals, birds or fish to gain strength and health.
The finding (cited above, reference 12) that we can achieve maximum muscle protein synthesis with a 113 g serving of meat dovetails with Chinese medical guidelines for meat consumption.
Chinese medicine recognizes the high value of meat but also notes that because meat is such a nutritionally rich food, consuming too much meat can result in intake more of protein and fat than the body can efficiently use. This will result in excess body fat, excess blood fat, excess cholesterol, liver and gall bladder congestion, kidney stones, and so on.
Dr. Bob Flaws, author of the Tao of Healthy Eating, explains
"Highly nutritious foods have more flavor (wei) than qi. In this context, qi means the light, airy, aromatic and yang part of a food, whereas wei, literally meaning taste, refers to a food's heavier, more substantial, more nourishing, yin aspects. All foods are a combination of qi and wei. Here again we see Chinese medicine's emphasis on balance. Highly nutritious foods, such as dairy products, meats, nuts, eggs, oils, and fats are strongly capable of supplementing the body's yin fluids and substances; however, in excess they generate a super-abundance of body fluids [and substances] which become pathogenic dampness. Although this may appear to be a paradox, it has to do with healthy yin in excess becoming evil or pathological yin or dampness, phlegm and turbidity."
This exemplifies one of the principles of Chinese science: everything in extreme turns into its opposite. Thus, food that is highly nourishing in moderation, turns into poison when consumed excessively. Because meat is so easily digested and strongly nourishing, it has what we call a narrow therapeutic range. Consumption below the range –– too little meat –– results in deficiency conditions (common among vegans), such as vitamin B12 deficiency; while too much meat (above the therapeutic range) results in excess conditions. Dr. Flaws further explains:
"Meats, because they are so nutritious, or supplement qi and blood so much, also tend to be damp...The fatter and richer a meat is, the more it tends to generate dampness within the body. Amongst the common domestic mammalian meats, pork is the dampest with beef coming in second. Therefore is is important not to eat too much meat and especially not greasy, fatty meats. Most people do fine on two ounces of meat 3-4 times per week."
Confirming the Chinese medical view, some research supports a link between excessive intake of meat and obesity:
In 1997, Kahn et al reported that among 79,236 caucasians, ten year increases in body mass index and waist weight gain were positively associated with kcalorie-adjusted meat consumption and negatively associated with kcalorie-adjusted vegetable consumption. Kahn et al state that their results “suggest that weight change may be linked to the proportion of energy derived from fat or to other unidentified components of meat.”23
In 2010 Vergnaud et al reported a that red meat, poultry, and processed meat all were positively associated with weight gain.24 The data from this study indicated that every increase in meat intake of 250 g/day (e.g. one steak at ~450 kcal) would lead to a 2-kg higher weight gain after 5 years.
In 2011, Halkjaer et al reported that a higher intake of total protein and animal protein was associated with subsequent weight gain over a mean period of 6.5 years.25 The association was driven by red meat, processed meat, and poultry. They found no association between plant protein and increases in body weight.
In 2011, Bujnowski et al reported that among the 1,730 U.S. men who participated in the Chicago Western Electric Study between 1958-1966, those who ate the most animal flesh had a doubled risk of being overweight and a 4.6 times greater risk for obesity compared to those with the lowest intake.26 Also, those who had the highest intake of plant protein had a 42% reduced risk of obesity compared to those with the lowest intake. This finding is remarkable considering that men in the lowest and highest quartiles of animal consumption obtained, respectively, 75 g and 100 g of animal protein daily and cholesterol intakes ranged from 660 mg/d to 812 mg/d. In other words, all of these men were consuming large amounts of animal food.
Mozaffarian et al reported in 2011 that in the Nurses Health and Health Professionals Follow-up studies involving more than 120, 000 women and men, a daily serving of red meat was associated with 0.95 pound weight gain and processed meats with a 0.93 pound gain. In contrast, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and nuts were associated with weight reductions of 0.22, 0.37, 0.49, and 0.57 pounds, respectively.27
In 2012, Shay et al reported that among 1794 American participants in the INTERMAP study, higher intakes of fruit, pasta, rice, carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, and magnesium were all associated with lower body mass in both sexes, while higher intakes of meat and several of its components–sodium, cholesterol, saturated fats, and heme iron–were all associated with higher body mass. Among men, higher body mass was associated with higher intakes of fish, beef, pork, veal, and game meats, and lower intakes of whole grains, pasta, rice, nuts, snacks, and sweets. Among women, higher body mass was associated with higher intakes of poultry, beef, pork, veal, and game meats, and lower intakes of whole grains, fish (borderline), and snacks and sweets. Overall, the pattern was of higher body mass associated with more animal-based diets, and lower body mass associated with more plant-based diets.28
Simply put, you can get too much of a good thing, at which point that good thing becomes bad. Although eating some meat is good, more is not necessarily better; and, conversely, although eating too much meat can cause disease, too little is not good either.
Chinese medicine focuses on balance and moderation. The appropriate meat intake for any individual depends on age, sex, and physical activity level, but generally speaking in a mixed diet there is likely no need to consume more than 50-100% of the protein RDA of 0.8 g/kg as animal protein daily because plant foods also provide protein. You may even find you can do very well with only 25-50% of your total protein coming from animal sources.
Since lean meats, eggs and milk products all contribute animal protein we can consider all of them "meat." Medium-lean meats and cheeses generally provide about 7 g protein per 30 g serving; eggs, 8 g per; milk/yogurt 8 g per cup. With this in mind we can see that we don't need to eat unusually large amounts of meat to get the RDA of protein, even if we relied exclusively on meat for protein:
If we combine leaner meats (which provide 8-9 g protein per ounce) with protein-rich plant foods we can further moderate our meat intake. For example, a 75 kg male aiming for 1.2 g/kg total protein (plenty for resistance training) could aim for no more than 50% animal protein, or 45 g animal protein daily. He only needs:
Using lean trimmed beef sirloin as the meat choice, that's a total animal protein intake of 55 grams, nearly the RDA alone; you can see why Dr. Flaws suggests most people only need a couple ounces of meat a few times weekly. This guy can easily get another more than 45 grams of protein from grains, legumes, green vegetables, nuts and seeds. For example:
All of that plant food only provides 1060 kcal, which means that with the above listed animal foods (470 kcal) he reaches only 1530 kcal, but already has a total protein intake of 101 g, which is 1.3 g/kg, considered plenty for resistance training. To meet his energy needs he can double his caloric intake from plant foods and get another 30-45 g of plant protein.
Historically people consumed all parts of animals, including the collagen rich portions such as ox tail, chicken feet, etc. Often these were used to make soups/broths. These portions are also used to make gelatin.
Eating the collagen/gelatin rich portions of animals provides nutritional balance to the amino acid profile of muscle meat. The fibrous collagen portion of animal tissues is rich in the amino acid glycine, in contrast to the muscle meat which is a comparatively poor source of glycine.
Glycine is a “conditionally essential” amino acid and we should eat foods rich in collagen or gelatin, or take a glycine supplement, in order to guarantee a healthy metabolism.16
Vegetarian diets appear to produce glycine deficiency.17
To learn more about the benefits of glycine, read our book Meats & Sweets.
Some research indicates that consumption of collagen/gelatin will improve outcomes from a resistance exercise program.
Subjects who consumed 15 g of collagen peptides within 1 hour after a resistance training session gained more total body mass, fat free mass and muscle strength than those who did not use collagen.18 , 19
Subjects who took 15 g of gelatin with 48 mg vitamin C a 1 hour before exercise showed doubled serum levels of a marker for collagen synthesis, indicating that the gelatin-vitamin C mixture increased collagen synthesis.20
I apply this by putting a tablespoon of gelatin in 1-2 cups of orange juice (~85 mg vitamin C per cup) which I drink before or after my training, with timing and amount determined by body signals (auto-regulation).
Gelatin (yes, like good old Knox gelatin used to make jello) is a convenient and inexpensive source of collagen peptides and glycine. We use so much we buy the 12 pack of 1 lb. canisters from Amazon (second from left, lowest price per ounce).
I don't believe there is any proven material/nutritional difference between Knox gelatin and the gelatin that comes from grass-fed cattle (on the far right) and costs almost twice as much (if you get the 12 pack of the Knox). If I discover evidence to the contrary, I'll change my practice.
1. Zeraatkar D, Han MA, Guyatt GH, et al. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk for All-Cause Mortality and Cardiometabolic Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Cohort Studies. Annals of Internal Medicine 2019 Oct 1;DOI:10.7326/M19-0655. <https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2752320/red-processed-meat-consumption-risk-all-cause-mortality-cardiometabolic-outcomes>
2. Zeraatkar D, Han MA, Guyatt GH, et al. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk for All-Cause Mortality and Cardiometabolic Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Cohort Studies. Annals of Internal Medicine 2019 Oct 1;DOI:10.7326/M19-0655. <https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2752320/red-processed-meat-consumption-risk-all-cause-mortality-cardiometabolic-outcomes>
3. O'Connor LE, Kim JE, Campbell WW. Total red meat intake of ≥0.5 servings/d does not negatively influence cardiovascular disease risk factors: a systemically searched meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;105(1):57–69. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.142521 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5183733/>
4. Archer E, Pavela G, Lavie CJ. The Inadmissibility of What We Eat in America and NHANES Dietary Data in Nutrition and Obesity Research and the Scientific Formulation of National Dietary Guidelines. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;90(7):911–926. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.04.009
5. Archer E, Lavie CJ, Hill JO. The Failure to Measure Dietary Intake Engendered a Fictional Discourse on Diet-Disease Relations. Front Nutr. 2018;5:105. Published 2018 Nov 13. doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00105
6. Sindhu Kashyap, Nirupama Shivakumar, Aneesia Varkey, Rajendran Duraisamy, Tinku Thomas, Thomas Preston, Sarita Devi, Anura V Kurpad, Ileal digestibility of intrinsically labeled hen's egg and meat protein determined with the dual stable isotope tracer method in Indian adults, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 108, Issue 5, November 2018, Pages 980–987, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy178 <https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/108/5/980/5112878>
7. Oberli M, Marsset-Baglieri A, Airinei G, et al. High True Ileal Digestibility but Not Postrprandial Utilization of Nitrogen from Bovine Meat Protein in Humans Is Moderately Decreased by High-Temperature, Long-Duration Cooking. J Nutr 2015 Oct;145(10):2221-2228. <https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/145/10/2221/4590108>
8. Mahé S, Huneau JF, Marteau P, Thuillier F, Tomé D. Gastroileal nitrogen andelectrolyte movements after bovine milk ingestion in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992 Aug;56(2):410-6. PubMed PMID: 1636619.
9. Kashyap S, Varkey A, Shivakumar N, et al. True ileal digestibility of legumes determined by dual-isotope tracer method in Indian adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019;110(4):873–882. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqz159 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6766447/>
10. Symons TB, Schutzler SE, Cocke TL, Chinkes DL, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D. Aging does not impair the anabolic response to a protein-rich meal. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Aug;86(2):451-6. PubMed PMID: 17684218.
11. Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Mamerow MM, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D. The anabolic response to resistance exercise and a protein-rich meal is not diminished by age. J Nutr Health Aging. 2011;15(5):376–381. doi:10.1007/s12603-010-0319-z <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3280506/>
12. Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(9):1582–1586. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.06.369 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3197704/>
13. Vliet SV, Beals JW, Martinez IG, Skinner SK, Burd NA. Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults through Whole Food Consumption. Nutrients. 2018;10(2):224. Published 2018 Feb 16. doi:10.3390/nu10020224 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5852800/>
14. Valenzuela PL, Mata F, Morales JS, Castillo-García A, Lucia A. Does Beef Protein Supplementation Improve Body Composition and Exercise Performance? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1429. Published 2019 Jun 25. doi:10.3390/nu11061429 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628355/>
15. Bendtsen LQ, Thorning TK, Reitelseder S, et al. Human Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates after Intake of Hydrolyzed Porcine-Derived and Cows' Milk Whey Proteins-A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):989. Published 2019 Apr 30. doi:10.3390/nu11050989
16. Meléndez-Hevia E, De Paz-Lugo P, Cornish-Bowden A, Cárdenas ML. A weak link in metabolism: the metabolic capacity for glycine biosynthesis does not satisfy the need for collagen synthesis. J Biosci. 2009 Dec;34(6):853-72. PubMed PMID: 20093739. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20093739>
17. Jackson AA, Persaud C, Meakins TS, Bundy R. Urinary Excretio of 5-L-Oxoproline (Pyroglutamic Acid) Is Increased in Normal Adults Consuming Vegetarian or Low Protein Diets. J Nutr 1996;126:2813-2822.
18. Oertzen-Hagemann V, Kirmse M, Eggers B, et al. Effects of 12 Weeks of Hypertrophy Resistance Exercise Training Combined with Collagen Peptide Supplementation on the Skeletal Muscle Proteome in Recreationally Active Men. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1072. Published 2019 May 14. doi:10.3390/nu11051072 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6566884/>
19. Kirmse M, Oertzen-Hagemann V, de Marées M, Bloch W, Platen P. Prolonged Collagen Peptide Supplementation and Resistance Exercise Training Affects Body Composition in Recreationally Active Men. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1154. Published 2019 May 23. doi:10.3390/nu11051154
20. Shaw G, Lee-Barthel A, Ross ML, Wang B, Baar K. Vitamin C-enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;105(1):136–143. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.138594 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5183725/>
21. Sharp MH, Lowery RP, Shields KA, Lane JR, Gray JL, Partl JM, Hayes DW, Wilson GJ, Hollmer CA, Minivich JR, Wilson JM. The Effects of Beef, Chicken, or Whey Protein After Workout on Body Composition and Muscle Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Aug;32(8):2233-2242. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001936. PMID: 28399016. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28399016/>
22. Watanabe K, Holobar A, Mita Y, et al. Modulation of Neural and Muscular Adaptation Processes During Resistance Training by Fish Protein Ingestions in Older Adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2020;75(5):867-874. doi:10.1093/gerona/glz215 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7164534/>
23. Kahn HS, Tatham LM, Rodriguez C, Calle EE, Thun MJ, Heath CW Jr. Stable behaviors associated with adults' 10-year change in body mass index and likelihood of gain at the waist. Am J Public Health. 1997;87(5):747-754. doi:10.2105/ajph.87.5.747 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1381044/>
24. Vergnaud AC, Norat T, Romaguera D, et al. Meat consumption and prospective weight change in participants of the EPIC-PANACEA study. Am J Clin Nutr 2010 Aug;92(2):398-407.
25. Halkjaer J, Olsen A, Overvad K, et al. Intake of total, animal and plant protein and subsequent changes in weight or waist circumference in European men and women: the Diogenes project. Int J Obes (Lond) 2011 Aug;35(8):1104-13. Abstract.
26. Bujnowski D, Xun P, Daviglus ML, et al. Longitudinal association between animal and vegetable proteins intake and obesity among adult males in the United States: the Chicago Western Electric Study. J Am Diet Assoc 2011 Aug;111(8):1150-55.
27. Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, et al. Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men. N Engl J Med 2011 June 23;364:2392-2404.
28. Shay CM, Van Horn L, Stamler J, et al. Food and nutrient intakes and their associations with lower BMI in middle-aged US adults: the International Study of Macro-/Micronutrients and Blood Pressure (INTERMAP). Am J Clin Nutr 2012 Sept;96(3):483-91.
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