Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management
Recently, there has been a attention about meat in the diet. One side of the argument says we should eat more and the other says we should not eat any. Today's article will set the stage with some basic information about meat and our diet. Future articles will look at individual questions around this topic.
Can you remember playing the telephone game when you were a kid? One person would come up with a sentence and whisper it in the ear of the person next to them. That person would then whisper it in the ear of person next to them and so on. Eventually the sentence would make it to the last person who would then say the sentence out loud. Inevitably, the sentence would be quite distorted from the original. This is a common situation in nutrition and the concerns around meat consumption are a great example.
What are the concerns?
There are several issues/questions related to meat consumption:
- Does meat consumption lead to obesity?
- Does meat consumption cause heart disease or cancer?
- Is it safe to eat meat?
- If I'm going to eat meat, what kind of meat should it be?
- Are there ethical issues involved with eating meat?
It is important to consider where the advice you are receiving comes from and what the facts are in relation to that advice. There are parties interested in seeing the continued rise in the sales of beef and there are those who would like to see all animal foods removed from our diets. The story from either perspective can be extreme. The truth is likely found somewhere in the middle.
Before we can examine the questions above or understand what the research on meat consumption is saying, we should understand what "meat" is. You might look at meat on a continuum. On one end you have highly processed hot dogs and most deli meats. These can contain a high amount of preservatives, non-meat products, fillers, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, you may have various cuts of grass-fed, free-range beef. If you were to look at a list from highly processed to most natural, it might look like this:
- Most hot dogs and deli meats, meat in many microwavable meals
- More natural or preservative-free deli meats and other processed meats
- Commercial ground beef, steaks, roasts, etc
- Grass-fed beef, steaks, roasts, etc.
- Grass-fed, free-range beef, steaks, roasts, etc.
*This list is not meant to all inclusive but used as an example.
Although the list above points more toward beef, a similar list could be made for pork, poultry, even fish, although the names would be slightly different. The significance of the list above is understanding what the Standard American Diet (SAD) is composed of, which is a LOT more of the types of meat at the top of the list. When we see research on the effects of meat consumption on health, the SAD is what is often used for study. There is yet to be a study done on the long-term effects of high levels of grass-fed, free-range beef consumption. If there were studies done on this type of beef, they would likely provide data that supported a very healthy outcome from their consumption.
Where did the concerns about meat consumption come from?
The concerns about meat consumption come from a few different sources. First, since the 1950's, meat consumption has been associated with increasing risks of heart disease and cancer because it contains higher levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. This is an interesting discussion by itself, but requires too much space for this article. Suffice to say, there has been growing doubt as to whether the saturated fat and cholesterol really have as much of an effect on heart disease risk as was previously thought.
The second area of concern about meat consumption comes from the way much of the meat eaten today is processed. With the preservatives, fillers, even high fructose corn syrup and trans-fat in many processed meats, it's possible these ingredients could lead people down a path toward less health and more disease.
A third area of concern about meat consumption comes from the way animals today are grown to provide the meat we eat. Much of the meat we eat today comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are like factory farms. They make for a more profitable, low-cost operation, but disease is more common, the animals are not fed their natural diet and the treatment of animals can be questionable. This is a topic we'll discuss in more depth in the future. I would also encourage you to see the film Food, Inc. which is playing nation-wide in select theaters. It is a very powerful film that goes into detail on what farming is like today.
Finally, the fourth area of concern about meat consumption would come from vegetarian groups. This is more of a personal choice which we'll look at in the future.
For today, the goal was to get an initial understanding of what is termed as "meat." Obviously, when meat consumption is analyzed in research using today's average diet, it is far different than the meat that was eaten even fifty years ago. In fact, Dr. Johnny Bowden, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, in an interview, recently answered the question "What are three amazing foods we should be eating more of and why?" His answer was blueberries, salmon, and grass-fed beef. We'll look at why in an upcoming article. Next Thursday, we'll look at how meat consumption got a reputation for leading to obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
Bowden, J The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. 2007. Fair Winds Press, Gloucester, MA
Pollan, M The Omnivore's Dilemma. 2006. The Penguin Press, New York, New York
Food, Inc. The Movie
Fallon S, Enig M. It's the Beef. Wise Traditions, The Weston A. Price Foundation Newsletter. Spring, 2000
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.