I'm not sure when vegetarian/vegan became synonymous with health (perhaps around the same time people still thought "low-fat" was a good idea?), but I don't quite understand it. Admittedly, if you google "Is meat healthy?" you are greeted with an overwhelming amount of articles asserting one thing, and an equal amount asserting the opposite. On one side, there are studies linking red meat consumption to a host of health issues, like cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. More recently, studies have begun linking only processed meat, not all red meat, to similar health ailments. Take this study conducted on 37,035 men with 12 years of follow up, that concluded only processed red meat consumption, but not unprocessed red meat, is associated with an increased risk of heart failure.
As with most things worth talking about, more than likely the answer isn't so black and white. Any blanket statements declaring all meat consumption is healthy, or vice versa, are most likely ignoring the complexity of the issue as well as all the potential variables that could be affecting the answer to that question. Though you can read study after study on the topic, I think it's important not to discount this simple fact:
Human populations have evolved and thrived on the consumption of meat for thousands of years, across both geographical and cultural divides.
In fact, common estimates place the domestication of animals for food around 8,000-10,000 years ago (around the same time plants were first domesticated as well), starting with sheep and followed by pigs and cattle. Personally, this is enough to convince me, at least somewhat, that meat can be a healthy part of the human diet. The odds that we as a species have cultivated, depended on, evolved with, and in fact thrived on the consumption of something that suddenly is found to be detrimental to our health, just don't look good. I would even venture to say that it seems slightly arrogant of us to ignore the evidence that history provides us with, namely the survivors--the humans that came before us who elevated our species to its current status on this planet, all while consuming meat.
Past vs. Present
However, as mentioned before, there is a host of factors to consider. To assert that our modern day cultivation and consumption of meat should, or even could, mirror our caveman ancestors (I'm looking at you, Paleos), is a hopeful fallacy at best. Of course, there is the case of unprocessed vs. processed meats, which are loaded with sodium and nitrates and other things that very clearly were not a part of meat consumption in the past. But even in the case of unprocessed meat, the animals are not the same ones that existed in the paleolithic age. Most animals we consume today have been selectively bred by humans, and therefore the idea that we should eat literally the same foods as our caveman ancestors, is built on a near-impossible foundation. Though I am not necessarily making the case against the Paleo diet, I do think the distinction between the foods we eat today and how they existed in the past is important, and this is explained well in Dr. Christina Warriner's TED talk "Debunking the Paleo Diet" (apologies to Paleos, but there's some good information there on the transformation of our food).
Regardless of the status of meat consumed, you're probably eating a lot more of it than our ancestors would have been as well. Yes, there is some evidence suggesting that large quantities of meat were consumed in the paleolithic era (approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago), but I'm going to assume most readers aren't paleo and focus on more recent history. According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (compiled here by the Earth Policy Institute), meat consumption in the United States has risen from 15.8 million tons in 1960 to 34 million tons in 2013, more than a 100% increase in less than 50 years. So, if modern day studies reveal correlations between meat-eaters and certain health ailments, isn't it possible that over-consumption, not mere consumption, is the real culprit?
Vegan = Healthy?
Though the debate over meat consumption is on-going, can we at least acknowledge the tragedy of conflating a meat-free diet with a healthy one? Let's consider this common scenario: a young girl who has admirably decided to adopt a healthier lifestyle decides to go vegan after doing some in-depth research (AKA spent countless hours scrolling the #vegan Instagram feed), and--with the inspiring enthusiasm of a recent convert--dives right in. The first items on her new and improved shopping list: Tofurkey deli slices, Vegenaise, Amy's Vegan Margherita Pizza, Sambazon Frozen Acai Berry Blend, loads of fresh fruit, and (hopefully) some fresh vegetables as well.
I've included links to each of the products so that you can investigate the ingredients for yourself, but if you trust me to provide an accurate snapshot, here's what this newfound, health-seeking vegan has decided to rely on as substantive staples in her diet: A LOT of canola oil, brown rice syrup, soy and wheat in their various processed forms, and plenty of sugar (consumed most frequently as "breakfast" in the uber-trendy but typically sugar-overloaded acai bowls). I think it is safe to assume that a diet relying so heavily on processed food, non-traditional food, and copious amounts of sugar is not at all "healthy" by design. Again, I mean not to discount the vegan or vegetarian diet, as there are plenty of examples of healthy ways to pursue either, but rather to shoot down the conflation between "vegan" and "healthy", that is so evident when perusing the cyber-vegan community. In case you are still not sure--VEGAN is not the same thing as HEALTHY.
SO, SHOULD I BE EATING MEAT?! IS MEAT HEALTHY?!
Call it a deflection, but if I had to give an answer to this question, I would probably say "Maybe." Personally, I feel healthiest when I include very limited amounts of unprocessed meats--of any variety: chicken, beef, pork, wild game--into my diet. However, I am not a dietician, and wouldn't venture to say exactly what is right for you... although, I would recommend trying to work unprocessed meat into your diet for only about 3-4 meals a week, and seeing how you feel. Whether meat consumption works for you or not, the point here remains the same: all meat consumption is not created equally, and the lack thereof is not inherently healthy, so we need to stop searching for such simple answers, ie. "Meat consumption always leads to heart disease" or "All vegans have healthy diets". If it were that simple, there wouldn't be this much to talk about.