Eating meat will clog your arteries, increase risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes, and take years off your life, isn’t that what we keep being told, and even more so today?
In recent years meat has become the most talked about and controversial thing when it comes to nutrition, with Netflix documentaries and warring nutritional theories becoming more and more prominent, it’s no wonder so many people are turn their back on meat or just downright confused about the whole thing.
As a species we’ve been eating meat since the beginning of our evolution, but today there are so many raging arguments about eating meat when it comes to things like the awful state of our nation’s health, the environmental impact of agriculture, and the unethical treatment of animals – and all of these arguments have become tangled up in a minefield of confusion!
If we want to live long, healthy lives, should we eat meat? How much is OK or should we completely scrap it? Should we consume ANY animal products at all?
While anti-meat advocates and scientists have tried to frighten us away from eating mean by linking it to things like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, research actually shows meat to be a nutrient-dense food that can actually help to prevent these diseases, as well as prevent nutritional deficiencies – as long as you focus on quality and eat it with plenty of plant foods and vegetables.
Plant-based diets should be the foundation of everyone’s diet, and quality meat and fish can also form part of the diet without being harmful in any way. The typical Western diet is made up of processed foods, processed meats, inflammatory omega 6 fats (vegetable and industrially processed rapeseed and sunflower oil, margarines, hydrogenated fats), plus plenty of sugar and refined carbs, whilst being low in vegetables and nutrient-dense fruits and other quality fibre.
I’m not saying that there are NO downsides to eating meat at all, but there are good scientific and health-related reasons to eat high-quality, organic, grass-fed, sustainably raised meat as part of an overall healthy diet.
Here are 7 points to help you make the most informed decision when it comes to eating meat:
1) Meat is the single best source of protein. I hear and read a lot of people saying that beans and pulses have a lot of protein, as well as things like pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and nuts. Well, they do, for plants. But firstly you’d have to consume a large amount of them in one sitting to get the optimal amount of protein required at each meal/across a day (ideally between 1.5 and 2g per kg of body weight per day), and secondly they lack a number of the critical amino acids, and we need ALL the amino acids, not just some of them, for good health. So, fulfilling your daily protein requirements with non-animal foods requires a fair amount of attention to detail, planning and effort – something that most people can’t manage. You have to eat three cups of beans with 100 grams of carbs to equal 6 ounces of animal protein (that contains zero carbs). And plant proteins contain very little leucine, the rate limiting amino acid needed to build muscle. Most of the plant-based protein sources are not ‘pure protein’ meaning they are also carbs e.g. beans and pulses like lentils, chickpeas, butter beans etc, or also fat e.g. nuts and nut butters. The older we get the more important dietary protein (we can lose as much as 3 to 5% of our muscle mass per decade after age 30) is in order for us to maintain our precious muscle tissue which means we maintain our health, strength, structure and prevent disease and ageing.
2) Meat was, and still is, unfairly demonised. Half a century ago it was discovered (in a flawed study) that saturated fat raises cholesterol levels and causes heart disease, and this led to the widespread demonisation of meat. We cut back on meat, opted for “lean” meat, and trimmed and skimmed all the fat off our meat. The thing is though that heart disease is a complex condition that doesn’t just involve high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, but also inflammation (from an array of other diet and lifestyle factors), blood sugar imbalances, triglycerides, and a lot of other factors. Also, the actual impact of saturated fat on cholesterol and heart disease isn’t that simple. Studies have actually found that the main source of saturated fat in meat, stearic acid, has no impact on our blood levels of cholesterol. What’s even more shocking is that eating saturated fat doesn’t raise blood levels of the saturated fats that cause heart disease. It’s actually refined carbs and starches, and sugar that actually raise your blood levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and the bad saturated fats.
3) Updated science research is still debating how much saturated fat is a “healthy” amount, and latest wisdom suggests that saturated fat is fairly neutral; i.e. it’s not harmful, but it’s not necessarily a superfood either. Saturated fat originally became demonised in the 60’s and 70’s after ONE research trial was done which concluded that saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease. We now know (although a lot of mainstream health organisations are not up to date) that this one piece of research was highly flawed. The decision to demonize saturated fat then extended across ALL fats by the 80’s – leading to today’s (devastating) fear of such nutritious AND weight management foods like egg yolks, quality red meat, nuts, olive oil, butter and avocado.
4) Meat is a powerhouse of nutrients for us. Our only dietary source of vitamin B12 is animal protein, and B12 is an essential nutrient for health. We also get valuable minerals and other vitamins from meat, as well as enzymes that we need to access nutrients, essential amino acids, and cancer-fighting antioxidants like vitamin A, which cannot be obtained directly from vegetables (the vitamin A in vegetables, like carrots, is not the ‘active’/usable form of the nutrient). Vegans often become deficient in B12, iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, omega 3 fats and more. Yes, plant foods contain many of these nutrients, but they are just so much more bio-available in meat. Quality matters, and I am not referring to processed or low quality farms meats here.
5) Which brings me to the next point, that grass-fed meat is better. Grass-fed meat (as opposed to factory-farmed meat) contains much better types of fat than animals that are fed grains instead of grass. Grass-fed meat contains more omega-3s, fewer omega-6s (which can be a pro-inflammatory fat in excess), and more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which can boost metabolism and can be cancer-protective. Grass-fed meat also has higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. It is often more expensive than conventionally farmed cuts of meat but worth the extra if you can manage it. In my house we eat less red meat (about twice a week) and higher quality, and we spend the extra on better quality chicken and turkey, and just cut back elsewhere.
6) A plant-based diet is a must. A lot of people talk about a plant-based diet in terms of being vegan. But everyone’s diet should be based around plenty of plant foods, whether a meat eater, fish only, vegetarian, or vegan. At least three-quarters of your plate should be made up of vegetables and the rest of quality complete protein (e.g. quality meat, fish or eggs). You can include some ‘starchy’ carbs as well preferably coming from root vegetables like sweet potato, baby new potato, carrots, beetroot, or from brown, red or black rice, quinoa, buckwheat and beans and legumes like chick peas, lentils, butter beans etc. About a palm size and thickness of meat added to meals that are mostly vegetables.
7) What about all the well-publicised scientific studies showing that meat eaters are in worse health than vegetarians and die sooner I hear you ask? Well, the findings may have something to do with which meat eaters are being studied. Studies show many people who eat a lot of meat (particularly processed meat) are likely to have unhealthy habits in general. They might weigh more, drink more, smoke more, eat a low amount if any vegetables, low fibre and good fats. They are also more likely to be more sedentary. So maybe it isn’t the meat that’s damaging carnivores’ health—maybe it’s everything else they are doing to damage their health. It’s not the meat; it’s what is contained in the rest of your diet. You can be a sickly, overweight vegan or a healthy, well-nourished carnivore.
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