Set down the doughnut—and step away from the bacon. When it comes to obesity, meat might actually be as bad as sugar.
That’s according to research from the University of Adelaide, where researchers in anatomy and human evolution found that meat consumption contributes to obesity on a nationwide scale.
“In the analysis of obesity prevalence across 170 countries, we have found that sugar availability in a nation explains 50% of obesity variation while meat availability another 50%,” study author Maciej Henneberg said in a press release about the study, which was published in the journal BioMed Central Nutrition. “After correcting for differences in nations’ wealth (Gross Domestic Product), calorie consumption, levels of urbanization and of physical inactivity, which are all major contributors to obesity, sugar availability remained an important factor, contributing independently 13%, while meat contributed another 13% to obesity.”
In short, the authors argued, meat contributes to global obesity to the same extent as sugar. That’s a bit of a surprise after years of hearing the gospel of Paleo and keto diets, which promote meats and ban processed carbs. “On the contrary, we believe the protein in meat is directly contributing to obesity,” lead study author and Ph.D. student Wenpeng You said in the press release.
Here’s why: “Because meat protein is digested later than fats and carbohydrates, this makes the energy we receive from protein a surplus, which is then converted and stored as fat in the human body.” In other words, our over-consumption of meat is creating a caloric surplus we’re not burning off.
How They Figured This Out
The researchers studied how easily people in 170 countries could access food types (meat, fats, fruits, fibers and starch) and the total number of calories and macronutrients in meat protein (excluding fish), animal protein (excluding meat protein but including foods like milk and cottage cheese), plant protein, animal fats, plant fats, and carbohydrates.
The researchers then compared meat protein availability and prevalence of obese or overweight BMI numbers across a population. The breakdown:
.67 g/capita/day of red meat correlates to a BMI greater than or equal to 30 (obese)
.8 g/capita/day of red meat correlates to a BMI greater than or equal to 25 (overweight)
.66 g/capita/day of red meat correlates to a BMI greater than or equal to average BMI
So more red meat correlates to overweight BMI numbers. Case closed, right? Well, not quite.
Here’s What You Need to Consider
How Much You Work Out
The researchers use the estimated rate of physical inactivity for each country, for men and women ages 18+, as a control. Essentially, these results are based on people who get less than 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or less than 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. Those people can probably get enough energy from fats and carbs alone.
But what about a fit guy who’s burning upwards of 3,000 calories a day through endurance training or weightlifting? The calculus changes: They not only require more calories, but also need more protein to build muscle. And if you’re hitting the gym five or six times a week, then you need a lot of protein—probably about a 0.68–0.75g per pound of bodyweight, according to Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University.
So yeah: You still need your protein.
What Kind of Meat You’re Eating
Not all meats are created equal. Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, veal, and game) and meat products (like sausage) have relatively high amounts of saturated fat, followed by poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, and other), and seafood (fish and shellfish), which is rich in good unsaturated fat, according to research published in the International Journal of Obesity.
The researchers don’t say, specifically, what meat contributes to obesity. But they do note that protein from dairy and fish don’t necessarily contribute to body weight increase.
Americans not only eat a lot of meat per person (212g or .47 pounds/per day), but also mostly eat (109.4g, 52%) ‘meat products.’ The rest is red meat (19%), followed by poultry (14%) and seafood (7%). And guys are eating far more than women—especially when it comes to red meat (53 vs 28 g).
What It Means for You
In its 2010 Dietary Guidelines for America, the USDA recommends the average American adult (on a 2,000-calorie diet) eat 3.3 oz—or 0.21 lbs—per day of red meat, pork, and poultry for the average adult on a 2,000 calorie diet. But, just like this new research, this is a recommendation for the average, non-active American. If you’re trying to pack on muscle and support muscle recovery, you need more of the right kind of protein.
And here’s one obvious takeaway: don’t go eating a diet high in fats and carbs.
The bottom line, as ever: Be mindful of your macros. Balance your protein against your fat intake. And that means carefully weighing your red meat intake, especially because of its high fat content and caloric density.
For more information on what’s “enough” and what’s too much protein, how to determine the pre- and post-workout protein sweet spot, and the best sources of protein, read:
Also, talk to your primary doctor or a dietician if you’re concerned you’re eating too much meat and what it can mean for your health.