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Is white meat really healthier than red meat?

Today, many people that white meat is healthier than red meat. But is this really true?

Let’s first understand the terms red and white meat. One of the major differences between the two comes from the amount of myoglobin in the meat. Myoglobin is a red pigment (similar to haemoglobin) that is found in muscle that carries oxygen. The more myoglobin in meat, the more red it is. The animals that use their muscle more tend to have more myoglobin.

So meat that is red includes beef, goat meat, mutton (sheep meat), wild game meat and even pork. Yes, pork is red meat at least even according to the world health organization. And white meat is food like fish, chicken and other poultry animals.

So why have we been made to believe that red meat is worse than white?

Two reasons

  • First is that myoglobin in meat has been linked to some forms of cancer. The more the myoglobin the more the risk. And red meat has more myoglobin than white.

  • Second is saturated fat. It was thought that saturated fat in meat caused heart disease and because red meat has more than white, red meat was deemed to be bad for health.

What does this all mean?

While it is true that myoglobin can increase cancer risk, saturated fat and heart disease is more complex than just fat. And saturated fat alone is not the cause of heart disease and some types of saturated fat are not bad for health. Saturated fat is therefore not a reason to demonise meat but the more myoglobin seems to be a risk. White meat on the other hand has less myoglobin and is higher in healthier omega-3 fats and so is thought to be better on that front. So, on this basis, white meat has an upper hand to red meat.

But is red vs white the only important thing about meat?

Not really. When we eat meat, everything in the meat that enters our body can have an impact on our health. And the quality of the meat also matters. And today we know that the way animals are reared is very important and may be more important than simply if the meat is red or white. Take poultry farming for example. In the past most chicken were reared naturally, they foraged for their own food and moved freely. Today many chicken are reared in crowded cages. These environments are often unhygienic. The animals are often modified breeds that have poor immunities and are often so sickly that they require lots of antibiotics. And in addition they are fed lots of foods that are often high in growth hormones and other chemicals/pesticides in the feeds. Some people have even claimed they are fed ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) to fatten them. This is a reality. So when you eat this chicken although it is white meat, it cannot be good for your body. All the hormones, toxins, antibiotics render this meat unhealthy. On the other hand someone may eat red meat from a goat that has been reared naturally in the wild and has fed on natural vegetation and never been exposed to harmful chemicals. This meat is definitely much better in my opinion than a commercially reared broiler chicken that lived all its life in unhealthy conditions.

The debate should no longer be is meat simply red or white. We need to look at the whole picture. It may actually now be better to first consider the way the animal is reared than to go into whether it is white or red.

This means we need to start thinking critically about where we get our meat. Buying at the butcher may no longer be enough. Look out for local farmers you know, keep some animals for your consumption or buy meat when you travel upcountry where it is likely to be better.

But whatever the case, one of the most important messages is that we do not need a lot of animal foods in our diet. We should limit them to no more than thrice a week for all animal products combined (including eggs, dairy and any animal food). It is now known that if you eat a lot of animal food, whether it is red or white your risk for problems including cancer and heart disease will go up.

What are our summary and take home messages about this?

  1. Although white meat may be a better choice for you than red meat, it is not whether meat is red or white that matters alone. The way the animal is reared or raised in equally and often more important.

  2. Always select meat from animals that are raised naturally and organically over whether they are red or white. But selecting organically and naturally reared white meat such as local chicken and fresh water fish from unpolluted sources (not from caged and commercial ponds) is probably your best choice and then occasionally naturally reared red meat. You would rather eat any natural and organic meat over white meat if not raised naturally and organically

  3. Always remember to keep your animal consumption to small quantities. If you do keep it low, once in a while it is ok to choose red meat over white. And when you do choose red meat, enjoy it and don’t feel guilty. Feelings of guilt could do more harm to you than the occasional bite of red meat

Wishing you health, wealth and happiness

Dr. Paul Kasenene

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