Meat

Health Flash...DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!

So, it’s pretty much the understatement of the 21st century to say there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.  Thanks to the interwebs, everyone’s a freaking expert.  And I’m talking EXPERT.  They know everything.  EVERYTHING.  And, they’re RIGHT, you’re WRONG (and FYI you’re an idiot for disagreeing with them).  It’s getting real in the Whole Foods Parking lot, if you know what I’m saying...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UFc1pr2yUU

But, one thing that I’ve learned about science is no matter how much you think (or want) something to be true, if the data does not support your theory, it’s simply not true.  Get over it, adjust and move on. Moreover, if you’re going to make a public declaration about a certain health claim, you better make damn well sure it is water tight - based on original evidence and then backed up by more original evidence. A single study does not a revolution make! Anecdotal theories are great, but then go do your homework!  If you see an interesting claim and are ready to make a big change in your life, your first move should be to check the source. You don’t need a PhD to do the reading.  Because, as I’ve mentioned before, data is data but the interpretation of the data by the mouthpieces is often woefully skewed.  So, go to the original source and read what the scientists write in the discussion of the paper, because more often than not, they acknowledge the limitations of their study and will usually state if more work needs to be done to corroborate their findings. Then, if you want to be really really sure about a certain topic, double check their sources. At the very least, you’ll get a more solid picture of what the research is really saying as a whole, not just what some interesting new finding is.  Because, like political polls, research is best understood in trends, not flashes (I’m looking at you, Herman Cain circa 2011).

romneyandcain_550wide_ScottAudette_reuters

The thing is, when it comes to my health, I am NOT willing to blindly trust the next “expert” that comes along with a revolutionary theory.  So let’s take a few flashes from the recent news media and check some sources, shall we?

Myths:

Meat is bad for you:  I’ve mentioned before that I don’t eat meat.  But, for me, it has more to do with the processing and handling of the crappy factory farmed meat available at grocery stores than the actual health implications.  Based on the data, eating GOOD (read: expensive) meat is fine, and actually an evolutionary necessity if you don’t want to live on a B12 supplement for the rest of your life. BUT...and this is a big BUT...meat eaters do pretty poorly in the health research. There are a few studies here and there that show that meat eaters are just as likely to live as long as vegetarians -- but this seems to only apply to the carnivores that shop at health food stores (true store...and FYI, if they're shopping at Whole Foods, they’re probably pretty health conscious outside their meat eating habits too).  Otherwise, there is a significant trend in the literature that shows that eating meat is pretty tough on our systems.  From an imbalance in the gut microbiome that may lead to atherosclerosis (new research that just popped on the news media scene a few days ago) to a decreased life span to an increase in cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Ok, so, that looks pretty dire...what’s the right thing to do?  Well, based on the data, eating a little meat is ok, as long as you splurge on it (spend the money on a good cut of well grown beef and make it a treat). Balance it out with fresh fruit and veggies (lots of them) and then do other things to take care of yourself like exercise and lay off the smokes.

Meat is Bad for you

Wheat is bad for you:  You've heard this one a LOT lately right?  Wheat, gluten, carbs...they're making you fat and diabetic and ugly and short (I made those last two up).  Well, if you have a gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, yes, wheat is bad.  But, if you don't (estimates state 1:133 have Celiac and ~6% may have gluten sensitivity), then whole grains are actually kind of superstars!  Despite what you may have heard, whole grains are chock full of incredibly important nutrients including dietary fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, and magnesium.  The problem is, most people don't actually eat WHOLE grains.  Most people eat crap-in-a-box that food companies want you to think is whole grains.  Seriously, when was the last time you cooked and ate pearled barley, or quinoa, or steel cut oats? THOSE are whole grains...not a FiberOne bar or even a bowl of Cheerios.  Those are refined grains, and are potentially the grains responsible for a large portion of the obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome crises we are facing today.  To find real whole grains go to your grocery's bulk food section and make some time to cook them at home!

 bulk section

Eating Carbs at night is good for you:  I know, this one totally contradicts the previous wheat myth.  Are you really shocked or does is this back and forth look familiar??  Thankfully, this is not a very common misconception, but it popped up on my screen a few weeks ago and I almost hit the roof! A local blogger I follow put on their facebook page that eating Carbs at night is, in fact, good for you...great for recovery and rejuvenation of pooped out muscles! Woot!! Who knew??!! I was pretty surprised to see this too (considering this person is marketing themselves as a local fitness and nutrition “expert”) and went on a search for confirmation that this is in fact, truth. (n.b. As I started out in this post, until you do the reading, you aren’t qualified to argue.)

someone-on-the-internet-is-wrong2

Turns out, it isn’t true. When I cited two scientific articles suggesting that they may be mistaken (I was very respectful) and that researchers actually discovered that carbs right after your workout are, in fact, the best time to replace stores of glycogen and that carbs at night contribute to increased BMI, I was told that “more recent research” demonstrates the opposite affect.  Immediately, I took a step back, thinking, “Wow, maybe I missed something on my search...I’ll check again.”  I spent a good hour on PubMed searching for articles...no dice.  Then, sure enough, I Googled “carbs at night good for you” and came up with ONE lone study, completed in 2011 (can someone say "flash"?) that showed that obese Israeli cops that ate two extra pieces of bread with dinner lost more weight than those that did not (note, they all lost weight because everyone was on a calorie restricted diet, but that's beside the point, right?).  And...if you dig a bit deeper into the study, you see that the group that ate more carbs actually started out with a higher BMI and more fat mass than the control group...thus, had more to lose!  When I brought this up to the blogger, they stated that they like to use anecdotal data, rather than scientific studies, and then pointed me to an article written in Testosterone Magazine (T-Nation) as their “source”.  Now, I have nothing against the T-Nation, but the article had no research cited and was really a lot of supposition and wanting of things to be true, rather than conclusions based on real evidence.

Young woman fell asleep at the table after hard eating.

Ummm...does anyone else think  this is a huge problem?!  It’s like a giant game of internet telephone! T-nation author reads a few New York Times articles, proceeds to write their own article, that is picked up by a bunch of local blogger experts, that tell hoards of diligent followers that scarfing white spaghetti before bed is going to help them recover from their spin class. Tada!  (Enter obese spinner.)

So, here’s my message to you.  Your body and your health are too important to entrust into the hands of the screamers.  The beauty of the interwebs is that, in addition to constantly receiving information, you can also seek it out.  You have access to pretty much any scientific data out there (...hopefully more soon, thanks to advocates like the late Aaron Swartz).  Use the power that you have available to you. Check. Double check. Triple check. Find the original source and read it. Really read it.  Because it’s only through educating yourself that you can decipher “flash” from “trend” and start wading through the constant barrage of contradiction you read on your twitter feed.

Paleo Shmaleo

Ok, it's time to address the Paleo Diet.  It seems apropos, because I recently attended a "Paleo Dinner" hosted by my fellow Recyclista, Emily Susen of Sleep.Eat.Gym.Repeat.

First, in case you've actually been living in a cave and haven't heard of this diet, the Paleo Diet is a food regimen cooked up by Dr. Loren Cordain, PhD, an anthropologist at Colorado State University.  He touts this high protein diet as one that humans "were designed to eat".   In fact, he suggests that you can "lose weight, prevent and treat heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, [and] metabolic syndrome" by eating "all the lean meats and fish, fresh fruits, an nonstarchy vegetables you want".   It's a diet, he states, that has been built into our genes - the stuff of hunter-gatherer civilizations.  Only real food that you could have hunted yourself or gathered from the ground.  Sounds super healthy, right?

At first glance, it really does! Real food!  Yes, please!  Except...

The fatal flaw I find in this diet is that it is 100% impossible to implement in the modern era.  I'm not talking about a little difficult to cut out the carbs or even particularly challenging on a wild beer filled Saturday night. I'm saying that the food that our ancestors ate does not exist anymore.  It has been selectively engineered for massive scale consumption.  There is no exception.  My favorite example is that, not so long ago, carrots used to be purple and were inedible.  Modern science has altered them to be digestible, enormous, sweet, and orange.

This is a Wild Banana.  Notice how little fruit there actually is.

Further, our ancestors actually had to HUNT and GATHER their food, which added to the healthfulness of their lifestyle.  If they didn't hunt, or if there was a drought, they didn't eat.  In fact, the research that probably helps to explain why our paleolithic ancestors were so "healthy" (i.e. not afflicted by modern self-inflicted diseases) is because they were calorie restricted, not pumped up with protein from wild game. (Side note: A researcher from MIT can actually mathematically show that the amount of calories available in our modern society is more related to our obesity problem than the actual food we put in our mouths.)

LEFT:  The small plants cave men would eat.  RIGHT:  The large, genetically altered, plants you eat.

Ok, so the food doesn't exist anymore.  But the modern day equivalents are still good for you.  True.  But, in addition to the implausibility of this diet, the "scientifically based" exclusions of this diet are quite imbalanced, seemingly cherry-picked from non-human research, and typically contradictory. Indulge me for a minute, while I work out some pro's and con's of the Paleolithic Food Pyramid in the modern era. 

PRO:  Real Food.  The idea with Paleo is that nothing is processed.  So, essentially, nothing in a package.  No crackers, no KIND bars, no protein shakes, no deli-meat... I'm on board with this.  Check.

Evolution at its finest. Sigh...

CON:  No Dairy.  No dairy = no dietary Vitamin D, and you all know how much I love my vitamin D!  Bottom line...Vitamin D is essential.  If you don't have Vitamin D, you cannot absorb Calcium.  Perhaps this is why a common disorder amongst the ancient culture was ostearthritis.  This is a particular problem in the winter time for those of us that live in northern climates because your skin absolutely cannot make vitamin D.  This leads to supplementation with pills, which seems a little anti-Paleo to me...  (FYI:  No dairy also means NO BUTTER.  Maybe it's me...but I feel butter is so often hyped as a "good fat" by the high protein crowd. As long as it is "grass fed" it seems to be ok.  I'm not against sparing use of butter, but this just seems a little paradoxical to me.  My girl, Emily, uses almond butter and several oils to cook.  Which seems good to me, but aren't those processed?  And there is no way that Paleo Man was pressing his own EVOO...)

Straight from a Paleo Dietitian...I wonder if there's a certification for that...

CON:  No Legumes....including beans and peanuts.  Legumes are off the list because of little particles called lectins.  The Paleo's like to call these little buggers "anti-nutrients"...I can't figure out why.  Basically, lectins bind to sugar and may do damage to your intestinal wall (not proven in humans...only in petri dishes, but it's possibly why some people feel nauseous after they eat beans).   The thing is, all you have to do is COOK your beans properly in order to inactivate the lectins.  Soak your beans over-night.  Eat tofu (which is boiled, a process that denatures lectins).  Or eat sprouted beans (again, turns off lectins).  Also, there are a BAJILLION (made up number) different types of lectins that can be found in abundance in the foods that are on the "eat more list" in the Paleo Cook Book (apples, sesame and sunflower seeds, rhubarb, tomatoes, eggplant...the list goes on).  Each one reacts very differently with a variety of cells in your body.  It's not a "one-size-fits-all" protein.  Oh, and it's a protein (which is supposed to be the staple of the paleo diet, right??).  Turns out, not all proteins are created equal either...

Dolichos bean predates humans. Interesting...

PRO:  No Fatty Meat.  I love this one!  No deli-meat, pepperoni, sausage, lamb and pork chops, marbled steak, or BACON (all off the list according to Cordain himself).  This stuff is BAD for you.  Documented again and again.  From excessive amounts of saturated fat to an obscene amount of calories, everyone should cross this crap off their list.

The problem is, I don't think this message is actually getting out there.  Everyone that I know that "eats paleo" gobbles down any kind of protein they can get their carnivorous hands on.  The diet does call for "lean meat at every meal"  however, there are VERY FEW healthy lean meats at the grocery store.  Do you honestly think that "organic chicken breast" is anything like the wild bird the Paleo-man had to catch to eat?  AND...that same Paleo-man would have swallowed every last bit of edible flesh on that sucker - muscle, eyeballs, liver, heart, even siphoning the marrow from the bone. AND...he probably wouldn't have another bird for days, maybe weeks.

Nathaniel Dominy, PhD (a Dartmouth based dissenting anthropologist to Cordain) says that the idea that our cave-dwelling ancestors consumed animal flesh at every meal is simply unfathomable.  He actually says that the staples of the hunter-gatherer were more likely plant based and has coined the term "starch-ivores" to describe ancient populations.  In fact, a multitude of research, including a recent paper in the journal Nature, showed that our ancestors truly did subsist on a diet of grasses, fruit, and bark, not animal.  Scientists can figure this out by looking at food particles stuck to ancient teeth (gross).

CON:  No starchy vegetables (including the super-hot-right-now-sweet potatoes) and starchy tubers.  I find this to be a contradiction considering several other tubers like: turnips, beets, carrots, celeriac, and radishes are on the "eat more" list.   Interestingly enough, the Glycemic Index (a measure of sugar content) in a cooked sweet potato (44) is less than a carrot (49).  This seems like one of those cherry-picked ideas.  I get that we want to move away from processed potato products...but this appears a little random.  There are no reasons given in the book as to why sweet potatoes are a no-go. CON:  No Grains.  The problem with not eating whole grains is that you are essentially limiting very important sources of micronutrients (like Vitamin E) when you eliminate them from your diet.   The Paleo's are super high on the idea that gluten, from grains, is essentially a poison to your insides.  Again, like lectin, gluten is a protein.   People can most definitely have sensitivity to gluten, ranging from mild allergic symptoms to very serious and debilitating Celiac's Disease.  However, Celiac's is an autoimmune disorder, not an allergy.  More people in the US are actually allergic to shellfish than wheat.   PRO: No sweets (including honey).  I'm putting this one in the pro-category because we should all eat less sugar.  No question.  Sugar, more than any other macronutrient out there, is most likely to be blamed for a huge portion of our society's disorders.  However, exercising bodies need to replace glycogen with glucose.  Gluconeogenesis (making sugar from other things you eat) will happen, however, it cannot happen rapidly enough to recover when you are training.  No glucose, no glycogen. No glycogen, performance declines.  Even Cordain has admitted this in his book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes. So, overall, I think this diet has its heart in the right place.... -ish. However, it's still a diet.  A very exclusionary (and potentially harmfully imbalanced) diet.  A diet that, despite its authors claims that it mimics an ancient-genetically-pleasing nutritional composition, is impossible to replicate in the modern era.   I'd say it's stretching scientific truth...a lot.

My last thought on the Paleo Diet is that it has become an excuse for people that work out to eat copious amounts of protein, with a complete imbalance of fruits and vegetables (which the diet does actually call for).  Cordain says you can "Eat until you are full."  The main issue with "eating until you are full", especially if you are eating super high calorie foods in the modern era, is that you will over eat.  No question.  And you will most likely over eat the steak, not the broccoli.

I get that you want to be the hunter.  But this seems a bit literal...

So, what did we eat at our Paleo Dinner the other night?  LOTS of fruits and veggies (obvi!!).  Pineapple avocado guacamole, red-pepper dip, and an amazing brocolli/carrot/cauliflower/seed-y/raisin slaw.  The two meats we had were prosciutto (cured meat...on the bad list..oops) and a tuna ceviche (which, as my husband pointed out, is a deep water fish that would have been pretty difficult for a boat-less cave-man to catch...).  Details, shmetails.

I want this shirt.

Carbs.

Carbs are bad.  Really, really bad.  They make you fat, give you cancer, make you dumber...

Overall, B.A.D.

Right??  They're bad, right?  RIGHT??

Sigh.

Well, despite the screamers' best efforts to blame all the maladies of the world on this macronutrient, it turns out carbohydrates are good for you too (like a little fat, some vitamins and minerals, some protein...).

The problem with carbohydrates is very similar to the fat problem.  Different types of carbohydrates elicit very distinct effects in your body.   Refined carbohydrates (i.e. grains mashed up by a machine and put into food that comes in packages like bread and crackers) work very differently from those found in true whole grains (i.e. the wheat berries you find in the bulk food section of your grocery store) which are both unique from the carbohydrates you find in fruit and vegetables (...yes, carbohydrates make up the majority of the nutrients in fruits and vegetables).

All C6H12O6

However, in the end, all carbohydrates are broken down to three simples sugars by enzymes in your intestines - glucose, fructose, and galactose - which are then absorbed and sent to your organs for processing.  These simple sugars (called monosaccharides) are either all eventually metabolized by your tissues to glucose in order to make ATP (energy), stored as glycogen in your liver or muscles (energy to use when you have low blood sugar or are exercising) or if they are present in excess, are turned into triglycerides and stored in your fat or muscle cells (bad).   I'll talk about these individual sugars more in future posts, but for now I'm just going to focus on them as a group.  There are important differences and sources of each and I promise to address them soon.

Suffice it to say, at the end of the day, they all become glucose or fat.  It really doesn't matter where you get them from.

What DOES matter, however, is how FAST they get into your system and HOW MUCH you are eating (and WHEN you eat them, if you are a training athlete).

Low Carb Diet lowers Glycogen in Training Athletes

An important thing to remember is that carbohydrate rich foods are necessary for healthy living.  One of my favorite bloggers, Emily, over at SleepEatGymRepeat totally cracked me up the other day when she posted that Dr. Loren Cordain (the Paleo guy) wrote in his book, "Paleo for Athletes", that training athletes should eat very non-paleo BAGELS, PASTA, and SPORTS DRINKS immediately after working out.  Her direct quote, "I FEEL LIKE I'M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!!??".

Well, not even THE Paleo guy can argue with decades of exercise physiology research that shows eating easily absorbed carbs after a long workout (>1hr) is necessary for replenishing glycogen in your muscles.  If you don't replace the fuel your muscles use, you don't recover and you don't perform.  It's that simple.  Glucose makes up glycogen.  No glucose, no glycogen.

And maybe even more importantly, your BRAIN uses glucose EXCLUSIVELY as fuel.  Yes, your brain can use ketones (a molecule that is chemically similar to glucose) as fuel, if you are STARVING. But it preferentially uses glucose. And not only as a fuel, but as a sensing molecule to tell it what is going on in the body in order to modulate circulating hormones.

There are several places where you can get carbohydrates, and the sources of these sugars are really important.   There are essentially 3 categories:  Refined, Whole Grain, Fruits & Veggies.

Multi-grain, sea salt, gluten free!  Good for you right?  Wrong.

Anything that comes in a package - box, bag, bottle - is a REFINED carbohydrate.  It has been manipulated by human hands into a new form.  It does not matter if there is a huge label that reads "Whole Grain" or "All Natural" or "Organic".  This type of carbohydrate is very easily digested by the enzymes in your intestine and that sugar gets sucked up readily into your system.  A friend recently recommended that I read, "Wheat Belly" by Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist who rightly shows in his book that wheat bread is absorbed and spikes your blood sugar pretty much as high as white bread.  I disagree with Davis' view on wheat as the culprit of all that is wrong with the world (but that too will have to wait for another post).   However, he is very right that wheat bread and other products like it are detrimental to blood sugar homeostasis and lead to subsequent health issues.

This REFINED carbohydrate is very strongly linked to diseases like Obesity, Type II Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and potentially even some cancers.  Unfortunately, this type of carbohydrate is what makes up the majority of the carbs we eat - boxed cereal, breads, pasta, crackers, energy bars, etc.

WHOLE GRAINS, on the other hand, come in a completely different kind of package.  A package made my Mother Earth herself.   These are grains that grow in the ground that go directly into your mouth.  Their packaging is called FIBER (it's actually called "bran" on a kernel of the grain).  Fiber is a substance that your small intestines cannot break down.  There is no enzyme in the small intestine (that we know about) that can tear it apart to absorb it.  Instead, fiber either travels through your intestines undigested OR becomes saturated with water and turns into a sort of gel that lines your intestinal wall.  Either way, it drastically slows down the rate of absorption of the carbohydrates that it envelops.  This keeps insulin levels low (insulin is necessary to transport the glucose into muscle and fat...low is good, but it is 100% necessary), keeps inflammation at bay (which is a precursor for atherosclerosis and heart disease), and decreases the total amount of carbohydrates that get into your blood stream overall (the gel acts like a barrier as the food travels through your intestine).  The ratio of refined carbohydrates to whole grains has been shown to predict a persons susceptibility for obesity, Type II Diabetes and heart disease.   The more whole grains, the less likely a person is to get sick.

The Germ.  Good stuff.

The whole grains also contain a little fatty center called the "germ" which is where all the vitamins and minerals live.  Folate, the B's, and maybe most importantly, the major source of Vitamin E.  No germ, no good stuff.

Some great examples of WHOLE GRAINS are Wheat Berries,  Brown Rice, Barley (not pearled), Rye, Oats (whole) and Quinoa.  The important thing to remember is that whole grain products (like bread, crackers, and snacks) may contain remnants of the whole grain, but the outer fibrous covering (the bran) has most likely been cracked or smashed, allowing very easy access to the carbohydrate (endosperm) inside.  This is why they spike blood sugar.

(n.b.  It should be noted that wheat products contain gluten, a protein that causes very real diseases like Celiac's and also affects a portion of the population with gluten sensitivity or allergy.  This is a separate issue entirely from the carbohydrates contained in these grains and I will write about this protein in the future.  Those with gluten sensitivities can still eat non-wheat whole grains and should also be very careful not to substitute wheat products with highly refined gluten-free products).

Good Carbs from Fruits and Veggies!

The last major sources of carbohydrates are FRUITS & VEGETABLES.  The greatest thing about fruits and veggies are they are also loaded with fiber, not to mention essential vitamins and minerals.  The sugar will be released slowly into your system and the total amount absorbed will be much less than alternative manufactured products.  They are also much less calorically dense than their processed counterparts, so will fill you up with less chance of weight gain.

You all know what fruits and veggies are so, I'm not going to make a list.  But one of my favorite veggies is Swiss Chard, because it is so fibrous it makes me imagine that there are little green scrubbies cleaning away any crap from the inside of my intestines (...I have an active imagination...everything becomes a cartoon in my head...).

Rainbow Scrubbies!

So, at the end of the day,  get as much of your carbohydrates from non-packaged sources as possible.  Can you eat pasta?  Sure, but only one or two times per week. Rather than just dumping some red sauce on top, make a healthy mixture with some broccoli, peppers, olives, EVOO and chicken (see how I worked in the veggies, good fat and protein there??).  That way, you fill up on the nutrient dense components of the meal and eat less of the refined stuff.  Better yet, make that dish with brown rice or quinoa...no refined anything!

Naturally Flavored Iced Tea

Pay attention to hidden sources of refined carbohydrates (sugar) as well.  Yogurt, breakfast cereal, snack bars, and juice drinks are all PACKED with added sugar.  Get your iced tea un-sweetened with a little mint and a lemon twist (it's good...I swear!), have plain greek yogurt with fruit and nuts for breakfast rather than the fruit-on-the-bottom variety, and snack on apple slices with natural peanut-butter rather than that 100 calorie snack pack.  You'll be more full (because of the fiber), have increased your vitamin and mineral intake, decreased your blood sugar and insulin levels, and helped your risk for disease in the long run.

It's hard to give up some of that go-to-stuff that makes life easier in the short run, but it's worth it in the end.  Life is a (strong) process, after all.

Meat.

I don’t eat meat.  But I think that people should.

I don’t eat meat for two reasons:  1) It’s better for your health to limit meat intake and 2) I think the practices of industrial meat production are highly questionable.  I often tell people that if I knew the name of the chicken, pig or cow I was about to eat, I would probably go back to a carnivorous lifestyle.  Maybe someday...

I think that people should eat meat for two reasons:  1)  We have physically evolved to be omnivores  - as demonstrated by our canine teeth and 2) If you don’t eat Vitamin B12, which originates naturally only in animal products, you develop pernicious anemia, severe nervous system damage and eventually die.  So, in order to avoid certain death, we need to eat animal.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need meat “for the protein”.   American’s consume  far more protein that they need on a daily basis. Despite all of the high protein diet advice you’ve been hearing, you actually only need 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight, no matter what gender you are.  So, a 110lb (50kg) person needs ~40g of protein per day, while a 180lb person needs ~65g of protein per day.   Even those people that are lifting weights or training don’t need much more protein intake - maybe up to 1.2-1.5 g/kg/day (timing is really the most critical part of eating while training). Currently, most people between the ages of 19-50 consume 80-90g of protein per day, about 1.5-2X the amount required.

 The great thing is, protein is in EVERYTHING, not just meat.  Amino acids (which make up protein) - the cliche’d “building block of all living things” - are in every being from algae to humans.  There are 22 amino acids that your body needs, and 9 of them are essential (meaning you have to eat them because your body cannot generate them).  So, sometimes you need to play around with the intake to get all 9 in adequate amounts, but you can do this on a completely vegetarian diet.  Look at a gorilla for example - the strongest, most muscular of any jungle animal - a strict vegetarian.

Big muscles.  No meat.

I get my daily intake of necessary animal from eggs and dairy (cheese, yogurt, cream in my coffee) as well as fish once or twice a week (also a questionable industry, I know).   However, eating dairy and fish, have been shown to provide positive health benefits in the long term - increased bone mineral density (Vitamin D and Calcium), increase cognitive function (omega-3 fatty acids), enhance flow through the digestive tract (good bacteria in yogurt), and help with overall weight maintenance.

On the other hand, a new study examining the long term effects of daily red and processed meat consumption has shown a 13-20% increase in mortality (i.e. death) due to cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Other studies have also shown red meat intake increases risk of developing Cardiovascular Disease, Hypertension (high blood pressure), Myocardial Infarct (heart attack) and all kinds of Cancer - colon, prostate, esophogeal, pancreatic… I could not find a single study with positive health outcomes associated with increased red meat consumption.

 So, why is this happening?  Aren’t we supposed to eat meat?

You would think, by listening to all the “high protein diet” pushers out there.  According to Dr. Loren Cordain, the inventor of the Paleo Diet, we should have meat at every sitting.  The claim is that we are genetically adapted to eat lots of meat.  I review the Paleo Diet in another post, but suffice it to say, the meat available at your grocery store (even the very high priced organic, all-natural, grass-fed, cage-free stuff) has very little in common with what the Paleo man had to CATCH to eat.  The Paleo man would have been eating wild animal that also had to survive in nature.  Thus, the animal would have been lean, fit, and healthy.  Not farm raised.   And Paleo man would have eaten the WHOLE animal - the muscle (what we eat now), in addition to the heart, liver, kidneys, eyeballs...even sucked the marrow from the bones.   And then he probably wouldn’t have meat again until he could hunt another animal (which may have been days or weeks, depending on the hunting grounds).

 

Modern Hunter Gatherers.

The idea that we are genetically adapted to eating meat at every sitting is not only untrue, it has clearly been demonstrated in the modern world to be quite unhealthy.  Our animals (cow, pig, chicken) are not naturally lean (in fact, they are often made incredibly fat on purpose), they do not forage wild leaves and berries for sustenance, they are born on large farms, typically pumped with hormones and/or antibiotics, and kept fairly immobile until slaughter.

 The fact is, modern day red meat (cow, in particular) is very high in saturated fat and cholesterol - even the “lean” varieties (which provide no extra protection against CVD or cancer, according to the study).  Furthermore, excessive intake of dietary iron from these meat products, particularly heme iron (found in meat products only…different from the non-heme iron you find in some vegetables), may also be to blame for increased risk of premature death.

Marbled (i.e. FAT) Steak...Would you want your muscles to look like this??

Processed meat (sausage, deli-meat, bologna, bacon) is even significantly worse for you than plain old cow.  These man-altered meats contain high amounts of sodium and nitrogen containing compounds (added during curing).  We know that sodium causes inflammation and increased blood pressure.  Bad, obvi.  Nitrogen compounds, called nitrosamines, are highly carcinogenic (cancer causing).  They form when meat is charred or cooked at high temperatures.

Let’s be perfectly honest, if you’re going to eat red or processed meat (i.e. steak, sausage, hotdogs, ribs) you’re going to brown it up - on the grill, in a skillet, roasting in the oven for hours - this may be toxic.

 

Grilling leads to carcinogenic nitrosamines.

 The thing is, this is not a scare tactic by vegans on a PETA kick.  This is very real.  This is not the “clean” meat of our cave-dwelling ancestors.  This is the highly processed, purposefully fattened, removed from nature, meat environment we now live in.

So, should you purge all red meat from your diet today???!!  No, of course not.  But, you should be very conscientious about your meat choices.

  • In general, stay away from meat shoved into a casing or sold in a plastic package.
  • If you eat red meat (remember, we are omnivores) eat it once every week or two.
  • Eat it with a GIANT, colorful salad maybe with fruit for dessert (the anti-oxidants in the veggies and fruit have been shown to combat inflammation and reduce the complications of nitrosamines).
  • Substitute red meat with fish, white meat (turkey, chicken), or tofu (come on, try it…!), which have all shown health benefit, rather than detriment.
  • Get very daring and try some meat-less dishes - add quinoa, garbanzos or soy beans make it a super high protein meal!
Changing your risk - LATimes.

Lastly, remember...if you’re going to eat red meat, enjoy it!  Buy a nice cut, cook it well, and really taste every bite.  It should be a rare indulgence to savor!  Red meat should be a treat, as it was to the hunter-gatherers of days past.