One nutritionist's opinion about eating meat.
A very popular question that I often find myself being asked is ‘is eating meat healthy?’ I can understand the confusion because there’s so much conflicting information out there. However, to me the answer is quite clear and if you don’t value my opinion you can stop reading now. But if you want to know why I think the way I do, then you are invited to read on. As far as I’m concerned, eating meat can be very healthy provided that it is consumed sensibly. What do I mean by ‘sensibly’? For that you’ll need to read on.
Like I said, there’s a lot of confusion, especially with the conflicting, sometimes misleading information out there. You will get different answers to the same question, depending on whom you’re talking to. Those who follow Paleo diet will swear by it whereas Vegans are likely to get out their crosses, garlic and wooden stakes. The world Health Organisation recently stated that processed meat and bacon are carcinogenic and that red meat is most likely too.
Apart from the ethical treatment of animals and their impact on the environment, there are other real concerns including medical and health issues. However, I think that the entire carnivore-vegan debate misses the actual issue which is that the real ‘enemy’ to our health is sugar, refined carbs and processed food and not meat.
When it comes to scientific studies, which naturally take a con or pro stance regarding meat, often the meat eaters who are the subjects of the study are already consuming a very unhealthy diet (even without the meat) which consist of tons of sugars and refined carbs together with other processed food. These subjects are rarely consumers of moderate amounts of grass-fed or organic meat which is accompanied by a plate-full of colourful fruit and vegetables. I think it would be almost impossible to carry out an accurate study about meat, because you’ll have to randomly group subjects into whole foods, low glycaemic, and plant based diet with grass-fed animal protein from organic origins and compare them to those on a good-quality vegan diet. This study has never been done and it is highly unlikely it will ever be because of the complexity and the cost involved.
Many of the studies showing meat as evil, use people who are smokers, heavy drinkers, consume a lot of sugar and processed food, eat very little fruit and vegetables, never take dietary supplements and hardly ever exercise. So is there any wonder that any of these meat eaters are fat and sick? Yet, meat is the one being demonised.
On the other hand, there’s evidence that being on a Paleo diet is healthy. People who follow this diet eat grass-fed meat, shop at better quality food suppliers, don’t smoke, drink in moderation (if at all), take dietary supplements, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly and have very little sugar and no refined carbs.
For a long time, saturated fat and cholesterol found in meat were considered unhealthy allegedly because of being inflammatory, increase risk or cancer and type 2 diabetes. But today we know that this is not necessarily true. But things are not as simple as ‘meat is bad’ and ‘veggies are good’. The real question you should be asking is this: are people who eat grass-fed meat and also eat lots of healthy food, don’t smoke, take supplements and exercise regularly in an increased risk of having cardiovascular disease?
Luckily some researchers already tackled this question and in one study consisting of
11,000 subjects of whom 57% were meat eaters and 43% were vegetarians (100% of the subjects were health conscious), and found that compared to the average western-diet (processed food based) eating person, death rate was halved for both study groups.
Most of the studies that compared meat eaters v. non-meat eaters should also be considered with caution because the meat consumed is industrially raised, factory farmed meat, known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This type of grain-fed meat is full of antibiotics, pesticides, hormones and with more inflammatory omega-6 fats from corn and not enough omega-3 fats. These studies do not include individuals who consume only grass-fed meat devoid of any pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.
Another ‘traditional’ concern that is often raised is that saturated fat in meat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the type of saturated fats that are responsible for heart disease- stearic acid and palmitic acid, are not prevalent in meat. These two fatty acids are produced in the liver as a result of eating sugar and carbs. To clarify: the type of saturated fat which increases the risk of heart disease is produced in our liver as a result of consuming sugar and carbs, and not from eating meat. Even more so, in one trial researchers found that on a low-carb diet that was rich in saturated fats, the blood levels of saturated fats in the study subjects remained lower because of the (low) carb effect. Basically what this means is that when a diet is low in sugar and refined carbs and high in omega-3, saturated fat is a non-issue. I do need to emphasis, however, that quality matters. Saturated fat in processed meat (such as burgers) is entirely different from a grass-fed steak.
Same goes for studies that showed that meat causes diabetes and cancer because yet again, most of the subjects of these studies were unhealthy people who consumed large amounts of processed food. When you do the same study on individuals who are health-food minded and only consume grass-fed meat (such as people who follow the paleo diet), all risk factors like cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes are decreased and not increased.
But before you start sharpening your cleaver and getting your chompers on high alert there are a few basic rules to follow in order to ensure you eat healthy, rather than unhealthy meat. If you choose to eat meat you should consider the following:
Eat only grass-fed meats. That is not a ‘carte blanche’ from me to eat as much meat as you want. Meat should be consumed in moderation. What is moderation? See point 4
Leave all processed meat in the shop. Remember that the WHO deemed them to be carcinogenic.
Method of preparation is very important. High-temp cooking (grilling, frying, smoking, charring, broiling etc.) causes atoxic by-products called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). The same applied to chicken, fish and vegetables which are cooking at high temperature. Therefore I recommend slow cooking methods for meat and vegetables (baking, roasting, poaching, stewing etc.)
Three quarters of your meal should be made out of vegetables (but not cooked in high temperature). Basically, 75% of the content of your plate should be phytonutrient-rich, non-starchy vegetables of different colour varieties. Meat should be the side, not the main.
The take home message on meat is quite simple. The majority of studies which demonised meat considered the implications of eating meat on already unhealthy individuals. Studies on health-minded individuals who only consumed grass-fed meat do not show any added risk but on the contrary. I wholeheartedly recommend a diet which is filled with lots of high-fibre fruits and veggies that does not include sugar and refined carbs, welcomes grass-fed meat as a health food, lowering inflammation and improving all of the cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.
Bbqing is not normally recommended, but you can read about how to make it healthier here.
If you think that anyone else may benefit from this information please do not hesitate to share and if you have any questions please contact me.