Diseases Linked to Meat: Is Eating Meat Bad For Your Health?

Eating meat should come with a health warning. Not just red meat – though the more of that you eat, the greater your risk of dying from one of eight diseases – but also the meats that are marketed as ‘healthier’ – chicken and fish. Meat is associated with immediate and sometimes deadly food poisoning incidents as well as long-term chronic and debilitating diseases. Here, we look at just a few of the reasons why eating meat – any meat – is such a bad idea.

Beef

E. coli O157:H7

This nasty foodborne pathogen causes bloody diarrhea, gastroenteritis and occasionally, life-threatening kidney failure. Ruminant animals on farms act as a natural reservoir and so it is not surprising that transmission typically occurs when people eat the undercooked flesh of these animals. (It can also be transmitted via deficiently pasteurized dairy products or other foods contaminated with the pathogen). Children and the elderly are more at risk from suffering severe poisoning, and more at risk of dying.

Salmonella

This pathogen dwells in the intestinal tract of farmed animals. There are numerous types (serovars) found in cows, all of which can cause disease in people. One cow-specific serovar is Salmonella Dublin, which in 2019, infected 10 people across six states, killing one person. It was linked to them eating ground beef. This serovar is particularly dangerous because of antibiotic misuse in farmed animals which means it has become resistant to the drugs intended to control it. Almost 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are administered to farmed animals – to keep them alive in squalid conditions and to promote fast growth.

Shigella

This highly infectious bacterial disease causes about 450,000 cases of diarrhea in the United States annually. Young children are most likely to get it, and may suffer seizures. Those with a weakened immune system are particularly at risk and in the severest cases, when the infection spreads to the bloodstream, it can be fatal. Foodborne outbreaks have been associated with many types of raw and cooked foods, including beef. Foods are most likely contaminated through contact with sewage-polluted water or by being handled by an infected person. It is particularly worrying because of its high level of antibiotic resistance.

Staphylococcus aureus

This is the most dangerous of the many common ‘staph’ bacteria, and is commonly known as MRSA – Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – which indicates it is resistant to antibiotics. There are two kinds – one associated with farmed animals and another that is carried by 5-10 percent of the American population. In dairy cows, it causes mastitis – a nasty udder infection that is present in all herds, which means neutrophils (the inflammatory immune cells that cause pus) are present in the milk we drink. In 2011, researchers found a new strain that appears to spread from cows to people. The bacteria was detected in cows’ milk in the UK, and caused “a small number of serious blood infections. A 2015 study into the prevalence of Staphylococcus aureus in beef products in Tulsa, Oklahoma found it to be ‘alarmingly high’ in beef livers (80% of cuts tested) and ‘very significant’ in beef (50%). Contamination may have been via people or directly from infected animals. Infection can be fatal.

Listeria monocytogenes

This bacteria causes listeriosis, an infection characterized by fever and diarrhea, and may also cause loss of balance, confusion and convulsions. Infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn. Older people and those with weakened immune systems may develop severe infections of the bloodstream or brain. Because the bacteria are able to live in a wide range of conditions, it is particularly hard to control. One study even found it in frozen beef. Even with adequate antibiotic treatment, the disease has a high mortality rate of 20 to 30 percent.

Poultry

Salmonella

Salmonella causes about 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year, with poultry meat singled out as a leading source of infection. The bacteria is carried in the intestinal tracts of the birds. At the slaughterhouse, where terrified birds defecate in fear, the bacteria spreads easily. The evisceration process – where the dead birds’ organs are scraped out – can also spread the bacteria from one carcass to another. In one study, where 13 percent of flocks were colonized with Salmonella before slaughter, the carcasses of 55 percent were found to be contaminated after slaughter. In 2019, there was an outbreak of multidrug-resistant salmonella infections caused by people handling or eating chicken. A total of 129 people from 32 states were infected, 25 were hospitalized and one person in New York died. The CDC warned: “Illnesses could continue because this Salmonella strain appears to be widespread in the chicken industry.

Campylobacter

This bacteria is the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States. Other common symptoms include fever, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, and there are more serious associated complications such as irritable bowel syndrome, temporary paralysis, and arthritis. In people with weakened immune systems, campylobacter occasionally spreads to the bloodstream and causes a life-threatening infection. Contaminated poultry meat is the most common source of campylobacter infection in the USA. It can be fatal.

Clostridium perfringens

One of the most common foodborne illnesses in the United States, this bacteria causes almost one million illnesses each year. It is found in the intestines of both people and animals, with the most commonly contaminated foods being animal products, including poultry. In a 2018 Canadian study, 10 percent of chicken carcasses at a slaughterhouse tested positive for the strain of bacteria that causes sickness in people. Diarrhea and abdominal cramps may last up to 24 hours, although in both the young and the elderly, it can be a lot more serious with symptoms continuing up to two weeks. For them, dehydration is a serious complication.

Shellfish

Vibrio gastroenteritis

This is the leading cause of death related to seafood consumption in the United States. Around 52,000 Americans get sick each year because of it and suffer watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, nausea and vomiting. It can also cause an “overwhelming primary septicemia” where fatality rates are greater than 50 percent. People can also get sick if an open wound comes into contact with raw or undercooked seafood, their juices, or their drippings. Consumption of – or contact with – oysters, crawfish, crab meat, clams, mussels, and scallops can cause this sickness.

Norovirus

Norovirus is a highly contagious bug that gets into our waterways through untreated human sewage. Shellfish are filter feeders, which means they filter seawater through their bodies to obtain food floating in the water. When norovirus particles are in the water, shellfish can accumulate the virus in their bodies. The most common symptoms of norovirus are stomach pain, projectile vomiting, and severe diarrhea and in the most vulnerable, it can be fatal. In 2018, 100 people in California became sick after eating infected oysters and in January 2020, more than one thousand people in France got sick in the exact same way.

Plesiomonas shigelloides

Outbreaks of this bacterial infection are associated with the consumption of seafood. Typically, illness consists of watery diarrhea and cramps, though sufferers may also experience fever, blood stools and vomiting. These awful symptoms can last up to 42 days. A California-based investigation found that, in the dry season, 4 percent of surf and bay mussels contained the bacteria.

Staphylococcus aureus

This antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as MRSA, is not naturally found in shellfish but workers can contaminate it during handling and processing. This is most likely because up to 30 percent of people have the bacteria on their skin and in their nose, and – as we know – people can be pretty unhygienic. Infection is characterized by a sudden start of nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps, and most people also have diarrhea. It can be fatal.

Bacillus cereus

This is a toxin-producing bacteria that causes two forms of disease – one characterised by vomiting, the other by diarrhea. It is the diarrheal form that is associated with the consumption of fish. The CDC estimates that there are over 63,000 cases of Bacillus cereus illness each year in the US and that 100 percent of those cases are caused by eating contaminated food. While the symptoms normally resolve within 24 hours, there have been severe manifestations that include severe infections, meningitis, gangrene, lung abscess, and infant death.

Top 10 Health Concerns Linked to Meat

Heart disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. About 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year – that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. Research has consistently shown that eating meat puts our hearts at risk. A 2019 study of 500,000 adults found that for every 100 grams of red or processed meat that individuals consumed per day, their risk for heart disease increased by 19 percent. Conversely, plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

Type 2 diabetes

More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, and another 84 million have a condition called prediabetes, which puts them at risk for type 2 diabetes. Diabetes can cause heart disease, kidney failure, and blindness, and costs the US healthcare system and employers $327 billion every year. Research shows that higher intakes of red meat and poultry are associated with significantly increased risk of developing diabetes. Conversely, a plant-based diet can prevent, manage and even reverse type 2 diabetes. A 2003 study funded by the NIH, found that a plant-based diet controlled blood sugar three times more effectively than a traditional diabetes diet and participants saw dramatic improvements within weeks. Since then, the evidence for adopting a vegan diet to combat diabetes just keeps coming.

Cancer

In 2015, the World Health Organization confirmed that all processed meat (bacon, hot dogs, chorizo, salami and any other meat that has been smoked, cured or otherwise processed) is carcinogenic. It also stated that all red meat is ‘probably’ carcinogenic. The strongest evidence for an association with eating red meat is for colorectal cancer but there is also evidence of links with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. And it isn’t about over-consumption. Even a moderate intake of red meat raises the cancer risk. Conversely, it has long been known that plant-based foods are cancer-protective. In fact, insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables is estimated to cause around 14 percent of gastrointestinal cancer deaths worldwide.

High blood pressure and stroke

High blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for stroke because it damages the blood vessels, making them narrower, and this can lead to clots forming and travelling to the brain. Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol – typically meats – have been linked to high blood pressure and stroke. There is no cholesterol in plant foods, and the good news is that there is strong evidence that a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains can be very beneficial in preventing stroke.

Alzheimer’s disease

This type of dementia is a progressive brain disease that affects about 5.7 million Americans. It is the sixth leading cause of death among all adults and the fifth leading cause for those aged 65 or older. Through their award-winning work, doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, co-directors of the ‘Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program’, have found that one of the biggest factors in our long-term neurological health is what we choose to put on our plates. We now know that the consumption of processed meats is connected to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s while studies show that eating a predominantly plant-based diet can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 53 percent.

Obesity

Obesity affects almost 1 in 5 children and 1 in 3 adults in America. It is associated with 400,000 deaths a year and an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon, breast, and endometrial cancers. Studies show that vegetarians are slimmer, while vegans appear to have the lowest Body Mass Index of all. One review of the scientific evidence concluded: “Based on the available evidence, however, PBDs [plant-based diets] should be considered a viable option for patients who are interested in losing weight and improving dietary quality consistent with chronic disease prevention and treatment.”

LDL cholesterol

There are two types of cholesterol: HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) and LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol). High levels of LDL cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease and stroke as it builds up inside the arteries, blocking blood flow to the heart and other organs. There are no signs or symptoms, which is why high LDL cholesterol is often called “the silent killer”. Saturated fats increase blood cholesterol, and foods made from animals, including meat, butter, and cheese, contain a lot of saturated fats. Don’t think that switching to chicken is the answer – it is just as bad as red meat. However, plants are low in saturated fats and have no cholesterol, plus they are rich in soluble fiber which helps lower cholesterol even further. In fact, studies show that plant-based diets lower cholesterol levels more effectively than other diets.

Acne

Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient and too little can lead to neurological problems. However, research has now shown that too much can also cause problems, notably acne. A study at the University of California found that the vitamin changes the way bacteria behave on the skin of susceptible people. Meat contains a lot of B12 and so high consumption could cause this unpleasant, confidence-sapping skin complaint. A vegan diet could be the answer to acne as it contains much less B12.

Erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction is caused by narrowed arteries – the same thing that causes cardiovascular disease and stroke. Dr Terry Mason, the Chief Operating Officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, says that this one disease with different symptoms comes back to what we eat. A diet that is bad for our heart health is also bad for our sex lives. “When it comes to erectile dysfunction”, says Dr Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “it’s not you, it’s meat.”

Premature death

A major study was undertaken by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital. They monitored health and diet records of more than 130,000 people over the course of thirty years. They found that raising the proportion of animal protein in our diets by 10 percent led to a two percent higher risk of death from all causes. This increased to an eight percent higher chance of dying from heart disease. But, every three percent increase in calories from plant protein was found to reduce risk of death by 10 percent. The figure rises to 12 percent for risk of dying from heart disease. So, it’s true. Vegans do live longer!

Does the human body need meat?

No.

There are millions of people all around the world who choose to eat no meat at all, and – as the detrimental impacts of animal products become more widely known – uptake of vegetarian and vegan diets is growing fast. It’s clear that the human body does not need meat. In fact, it does much better without it. Choosing a wholefood plant-based diet – where vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains are put front and center – is the best diet for optimal health. Not only does this way of eating cut out much of the saturated fat and all the cholesterol that causes so many problems, it also contains all the nutrients we need and has an overall protective effect on our health.

Why is eating meat bad for your body?

Our bodies are just not designed to eat meat. We don’t have speed for catching prey, claws for shredding skin, or the right teeth for ripping flesh. Our guts are long like those of our herbivorous friends not short like those of true meat-eaters. And there is a reason tigers’ guts are short – they need to get the nutrients out of the meat fast and get rid of the remains before it rots in their guts. But us humans have lovely long guts so it’s no surprise eating meat carries the highest risk of foodborne illnesses in people.

Meat contains saturated fats and cholesterol. These narrow our arteries, raise our blood pressure and make heart attacks, stroke, and erectile dysfunction all more likely. All processed meat causes cancer, and all red meat is likely to do so, too. Plus when cooked at high temperatures – such as on a grill or when fried – chemicals known as heterocyclic amines form, and these chemicals are also linked to an increased cancer risk.

Eating meat makes both obesity and diabetes more likely, and is likely to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Disease research is increasingly focusing on the health of our gut biome and once again, it is plant-based foods that seem to offer the best chance at optimal health.

Conclusion

We’ve all got to die from something but why would we choose to eat foods that make ill-health, disease, suffering and dying so much more likely? With every meal, we are making a statement: either “I don’t really value myself, and I don’t care whether this food makes me sick” or “this one body, served by this one heart, is all that keeps me here with my loved ones so I’m gonna treat it right”.

And it’s not a choice between pleasure and health. Plant-based food can taste every bit as good as – and often so much better than – animal foods, and those who switch to a plant-based diet often find a whole world of incredible tastes, flavours and new ingredients opens up to them.

Why don’t you try it for one month and see for yourself? We’ll support you with daily emails plus valuable health and nutrition resources, and some of our favorite plant-based recipes.

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Aside from the excess weight, bad skin, the sluggish heart and narrowing arteries, the higher risk of diabetes, stroke, food poisoning and early death, what have you got to lose?

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