Lately, I have been having quite a few discussions with my two youngest daughters about the pros and cons of different diets.
They both are young adults (last year of high school and second year of University/or you might call it College). Both know at least a couple of people who are vegans, and both copped a bit of stick about being an omnivore. Veganism is definitely on the rise at the moment, especially in that age bracket. While I’m not quick to judge other people about their food choices (ok, I am….but that’s a different story), I feel that a little blog post about meat is due. Red meat in particular.
Why red and not meat in general? Because it seems that most people who gave up eating meat choose red meat in particular as an example of an unhealthy part of omnivore diet.
So how healthy/unhealthy red meat really is? Here are my two cents.
- There are two kinds of meat (red or not): factory raised and organically raised (the way our grandparents raised their meat, in a paddock, free to roam, eating grass). The difference between the two? Factory raised cattle is mass raised, kept in confined quarters and fed specially developed feed made up of protein- and energy-packed grain concentrate specifically to fatten up the cattle quickly. It is also fed antibiotics (as a preventive measure) and growth hormones. You don’t need to be a professor of particle physics to work out that animal fed this kind of diet (which is totally unnatural to a cow – did you see a cow in a paddock that will choose grain over grass?) will be inflamed and not healthy. As a result, meat from this animal will also be inflamed and high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats and low in the healthy omega-3 fats. So the questions you should be asking before you buy your steak are: Where has it come from? How was the animal raised? What was it fed on? Eat organically raised, grass-fed meat, you should be fine!
- Unprocessed and processed meat. What is the difference between processed and unprocessed red meat? Unprocessed red meat is basically steak, minced (ground) beef and so on. Processed red meats: sausages and hot dogs, bacon and other pink meat such as ham and cold cuts. Processed meat had nitrates added as preservatives and here is the problem: risk arises due to the correlation between nitrates in meats and nitrosamine formation in the body. My take: don’t eat processed meat, or at the very least, find nitrate free ham and sausages. Simples.
- Is it the meat or is it the cooking method? Meat cooked at high temperature contains mutagenic compounds (Heterocyclic Amines, Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons, and Nitrosamines in particular). However, the content of HCAs and PAHs are more indicative of preparation method than of meat selected and tend to be associated with specific preparation methods of red meats rather than chicken or fish, for example. My take: don’t barbeque your meat till it’s charred. Even better, don’t barbeque red meat at all. Use moist, low-temperature cooking methods such as braising and stewing, rather than high heat methods. If you still are going to barbeque your steak, marinate it beforehand (marinating the meat tend to minimise the development of the mutagenic compounds).
- Some studies that have been done on red meat diet noted that people who consume more red meat also tend to consume more energy overall and have a higher BMI, eat less fruits and vegetables, exercise less and have higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. My take: all that combined might be the problem, not the red meat itself, don’t you think?
- Red meat it is an excellent source of Iron. Iron-deficiency anemia is a global public health concern affecting hundreds of millions of children and women (who lose blood, and thus iron, in their monthly cycles). Heme-based iron (the kind you get from animal sources) is much more efficiently absorbed by our body than non-heme iron (plant-based) — at a rate of about 35 percent versus 5 percent. This is due to the heme iron molecule, and its chemical structure shape that is recognized by our cellular heme transporters, allowing the molecule to be easily carried across the cell membrane. However, (like with everything else) balance is the key word here: you don’t want too much iron in your blood. Excess iron can speed up the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL – the bad cholesterol), causing tissue-damaging inflammation. But before you shun red meat for its iron: numerous studies have shown that vegans, particularly children on vegan diets, are highly susceptible to iron-deficiency anemia, which is marked by weakness, fatigue, and poor concentration and learning). My take: it’s the dose that makes the poison. Eat red meat in moderation.
To sum it all up, I am NOT an anti-vegan and DEFINITELY NOT an anti-vegetarian. Whilst personally, I do not believe that vegan diet is extremely healthy long term, I do think that vegetarian diet can be – if followed correctly, particularly if fish is also consumed (so not vegetarian per se, but pescetarian diet).
Also, I do not believe that red meat is our enemy. As a matter of fact, as I mentioned before, it is an excellent source of Iron, Magnesium and B Vitamins. However, as with everything else, moderation is the key. Let me repeat it again: the dose makes the poison. As a nation, we eat way, WAY too much meat. We definitely don’t need to have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Once or twice per week, a palm-size portion of unprocessed red meat that was humanly and organically raised, grass- not grain-fed, and raised with no antibiotics or growth hormones can be a nourishing part of our diet.