The Great Meat Debate

Meat. Is is good for your health or is it bad for your health? I’m pretty psyched to get into this topic in some detail and share a lot of knowledge I’ve learned (the hard way, mind you) in my journey.

While I will provide some information supporting meat consumption keep in mind that I am 100% a meat-eater and believe that some animal protein can be beneficial for everyone. The “how much” protein and what types of protein are where it gets tricky and are incredibly individualized. Everyone is different and reacts to different macronutrient ratios differently as well as different proteins and foods.

Before you come running at me screaming and telling me I am “killing animals and the Earth” I will let it be known I spent over a year of my life in college as a vegetarian, and most of that was on a strict vegan diet. I have also always done a lot of research and have believed in and cultivated a passion for listening to my body.

What my body was telling me when I wasn’t consuming meat was that I was so exhausted ALL. THE. TIME. Yes, I was consuming protein in the form of beans, nuts, seeds and meat alternatives like tofu, tempeh and beans but it just wasn’t doing it for me in the long run. Initially, I felt fine on a more vegetarian diet but I honestly believe that’s because I cut out a ton of processed foods and replaced them with more veggies and whole foods.

I have always been an advocate of nutrient density – meaning I want to be able to eat the most nourishing foods for my body to help me feel my best and THRIVE. These are the foods with the most vitamins, minerals and are as unprocessed as possible.

Somewhere along the way though I had heard that meat was “bad” and that the “cholesterol would block my arteries” and that ultimately vegetarianism was a goal I should aspire to if I cared about my body and the planet.

So I started researching. I started watching documentaries, reading vegetarian and vegan food blogs and skimming the internet for any information I could find to help me to pursue cutting meat and other animal products out of my diet.

I remember watching Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead and thinking “WOW that guy healed his body just by drinking juice! That must be what I should do too!” Oh man, so wrong. Have you ever tried to survive on just juice?! It’s not easy, nor does it nourish the body with all the macronutrients (or fiber) it needs in a day.

Case in point, I tried to copy-cat what I saw others doing and did one-sided (read: biased) research to “cover my bases” and justify how I was eating. But what I didn’t realize was there was a WHOLE other side to the argument. A side that is backed by science instead of government influences or big corporations.

I want to try and break down some common myths that usually come with meat-consumption and really try to provide some clarity on a heavily debated topic.

#1 Saturated Fat

Doesn’t fat make you, well… fat? This topic, by now, has become one of my all time favorite topics. Let’s break things down, shall we?

What is Saturated Fat? And why is it so scary? Saturated fat is a type of fatty acid – along with monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Fatty acids are types of carbon and hydrogen chains attached to a carboxyl group. All fats, whether animal or plant have these same structures.

By saying saturated fat, we are saying that the chain is saturated and every carbon has a hydrogen – the chain is stable and secure. Monounsaturated fats have one unsecured link and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) have multiple unsecured links. The more unsecured links a fat has, the less stable that fat is. Polyunsatuated fats can be further broken down into Omega-3 and Omega-6.

Omega-3 can be found in seafood, fish and some plants. While Omega-6 can be found in industrial oils such as canola (vegetable oil), soy, cottonseed and corn. These man-made oils are also known as trans fats. Hydrogen bonds are added to make these fats shelf stable, also known as hydrogenation. Easily oxidized and frequently rancid, trans fats are responsible for inflammation, cancer and even diabetes.

What’s really important here is the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 in our bodies. Most Americans are eating a 1:10 ratio, which is highly inflammatory. What we really want to do is increase the amount of Omega-3 intake by consuming more seafood and decrease our Omega-6 intake.

Basically, when fatty acids are allowed to be unstable in our bodies (like Omega-6) they can create all sorts of issues. They can create free-radical damage, act as pro-inflammatory agents, and even increase the risk of cancer and heart disease. Really not cool.

Now that we’ve been properly educated we can get back to saturated fats. Most foods that contain fat have a blend of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Foods are generally categorized by what type of fat they are mainly composed of. So while butter is a blend of three forms of fat, it is widely recognized as saturated fat.

Why do fats have such a bad rap?  Back in 1960s, heart attacks in the U.S. had increased to the highest rate yet recorded. There needed to be an answer for the sudden rise in heart disease.

So researchers took rabbits and fed them a diet full of saturated fat and cholesterol. Keep in mind that rabbits are herbivores and are NOT accustomed to eating a diet full of saturated fat or cholesterol and have no way of processing them. The studies ended up concluding that cardiovascular disease must be caused by an increase in saturated fat and cholesterol because some of the rabbits developed cardiovascular disease.

See anything faulty with this? It’s a little hard to expect rabbits to have the same metabolic processing system that humans have to break down fats and cholesterol. In this study they failed to prove that correlation equals causation by using inappropriate test subjects.

#2 Cholesterol

Won’t all that cholesterol clog my arteries?! Let’s dive in a little.

This is where cholesterol’s role comes into play. Generally separated into two categories – “good cholesterol” or HDL cholesterol and “bad cholesterol” or LDL cholesterol. HDL and LDL are measurements for lipoproteins in the body. Lipoproteins bind cholesterol in the body and deliver it to different parts of the body. HDL cholesterol is transported to the liver to be removed by the body and LDL cholesterol is transported to inflamed parts of the body.

Testing both HDL and LDL can offer snapshots of what is happening in the body. High levels of HDL can indicate that cholesterol is freely moving in the body while low levels of LDL can indicate that accumulation is happening and the particles start to oxidize in the body creating the plaque that can lead to heart disease.

So what does raise LDL levels? Trans fats! They play a large role in insulin sensitivity and glucose transport when integrated into the cell membranes. Meaning, trans fats affect where the body stores sugar(carbohydrates) and how sensitive our bodies are to carbohydrates that we consume. The more sensitive we are, the better. More on insulin sensitivity in another post. Just know for now that it’s important to be insulin sensitive in order to control blood sugar levels and to use carbohydrates as a fuel source.

Other factors that can raise cholesterol include excess alcohol consumption, smoking, lack of exercise and STRESS.

Cholesterol in the body is necessary for balancing hormones, helping to produce vitamin D and also helps to break down fats in the body. If you are looking for a video explanation or a more in-depth review of cholesterol head here.

In terms of “high” cholesterol, doctors typically prescribe a statin drug if numbers are higher than 200. While it is perfectly fine for women to have a higher cholesterol number than men (about 20-40 points), it is equally important not to have too LOW of cholesterol.

#3 Protein

Now that we have a better understanding of how saturated fat and cholesterol work in the body from a dietary source, we can explore protein content and importance.

Sarah Ballantyne, of the Paleo Mom, writes that “a higher protein intake has been associated with greater thermogenesis, better preservation of lean muscle tissue (especially during weight loss), greater satiation after eating, better appetite regulation, a lower rate of weight regain after loss, better body composition, easier fat loss on reduced-calorie diets, improved blood glucose control, and greater bone density!” That’s a pretty awesome list if you ask me.

Protein is a macronutrient, alongside fat and carbohydrates. Protein is made of amino acids, which are our bodies and cells building blocks. Out of the amino acids, 9 have been deemed essential. Meaning that we would not be able to survive without them as our bodies do not produce them.

Not all protein is equal though. Animal and plant proteins differ through the types of amino acids that are available in them. The density of a protein differs along with the quality (read: digestibility and bioavailability) of the protein. While some plants can contain complete sources of protein, the density of protein:carbohydrate ratio is relatively low.

Sources like beans, some grains, lentils and nuts can provide complete protein in the diet but the amount will be much lower compared to animal foods like beef, chicken or even eggs.

Certainly not impossible by any means to get an adequate amount of protein but knowing what protein levels work well for your body can take some time to really figure out. Activity levels, age, gender, stress levels and even metabolic state. Here is a great article by Chris Kresser with some guidelines surrounding protein intake.

Personally, I feel awesome with a higher protein diet (in the ~30% calorie intake range) and can feel myself crash when I don’t have enough. While this might not be ideal for YOU, it does take some playing around to get macronutrient ratios right for a sustainable lifestyle.

What does a sustainable amount of protein look like? Well, let’s take a look at what can happen when a deficiency occurs first. Not consuming enough (enough = very individual, again…) protein can cause a slower metabolism, low energy levels, lack of muscle mass gain and/or weight loss, mood swings and low immunity. Sound like fun? Nope. No thanks.

According to Dr. Axe, his general suggestion is to consume “about 0.36 grams of protein for every pound that you weigh, however some people find that they feel better when they increase their protein intake and aim to eat about 0.5 grams of protein for every pound.” So for me this is at least ~65 grams of protein a day. To me, this is really not difficult and can be easily achieved in the day. I likely consume closer to ~80 grams of protein a day and feel like I can recover from all of my workouts and sleep throughout the night.

Meat is incredibly satiating and can make you feel fuller for longer. This can help to curb snacking or consuming excess calories. This, in turn, can help to stabilize blood sugar and insulin resistance. Though generally fat and carbohydrates are scrutinized for weight loss, maybe we should be taking a closer look at protein for weight loss and weight maintenance?!

Need easy ways to add protein? COLLAGEN! Collagen can add up to 20g of protein for a serving and is tasteless. I love adding it into my morning drinks (either matcha or coffee), smoothies or tea! Other easy options include the “put an egg on it” theory where you eat normal meals and add a fried egg on top. Boom. Easy, 7 more grams of protein!

Changing up your protein sources is also helpful. While chicken breast and salmon can be excellent sources of protein, try other cuts and styles like bone-in chicken thighs or shrimp! I also love adding homemade (or store bought) bone broth to all my soups and stews for added protein levels along with added micronutrients!

#4 Environmental Concerns

I will be the first to say that this will be in no way a comprehensive argument about this topic. People have written BOOKS about this subject. I won’t be writing a book about this subject anytime soon but I do have some words to say.

I am becoming increasingly obsessed with Diana Rogers of Sustainable Dish and her continuing efforts to bring light and knowledge to the sustainable living movement. Diana has devoted her life to researching and educating about how we can better ourselves and the planet through meat consumption and does so with a very down-to-earth approach.

I admire her work and think she makes some EXCELLENT points. I will not be arguing or defending every single ethical or environmental concern but I do think a few main ones are worth bringing up. That being said if you want more information from Diana please head here.

In terms of ethics or what I like to call death and the cycle of life, I think it is completely normal and necessary for animals to be born and then die. I want to be clear that I am not in favor of conventional feed lot animal (CAFO from here on) treatment. Since the beginning of time animals have lived and then died and created room for more life. In my eyes, all animals are equal and one does not deserve to die more (or less) than another just because they have a closer resemblance to humans.

Death comes from animals being used for meat and it also comes for creating land usage for agriculture. Fertilizer runoff, pesticides and plowing kill small animals, reptiles and insects. In my mind this is not a just argument for plant based foods over animal foods. Do mice deserve to die more than a cow does so we can plant a field of corn? I don’t really think so.

In addressing the water necessary for keeping livestock alive, there are a few different methods to which water usage can be measured. More here. To keep it simple, beef (conventional) requires about 410 gallons of water per pound to produce. And so does rice, avocados, walnuts and sugar. WHOA PLANTS TAKE THAT MUCH WATER? Yes, and can be even higher depending on the season. Grass-fed beef on the other hand only requires about 100 gallons of water per pound to produce. Hence another point for grass-fed meat!

Soil health and greenhouse gases also deserve a shoutout and are something we should absolutely be concerned about. Cows in a pasture (let’s focus on the grass-fed kind) that are given enough space to roam and graze create an extremely bio diverse soil that stimulates new grass growth. Their poop creates a fertilizer that can sequester carbon underground (yay!). On the opposite side with plants (specifically monocultures, meaning just one crop is planted and harvested over and over) the soil becomes depleted from nutrients and if chemical fertilizers are used can actually add to the greenhouse gases.

I think now, more than ever, it is SO important to vote with our dollars to voice our options. Rather than simply “opt out” of the system and become a bystander, we should be buying organic, humanely raised animal products. The louder the demand becomes for quality in our food sources, the larger the market can become and the more we can bring about a change in how the meat industry operates.

TL;DR

Basically, saturated fat and cholesterol are much more likely to come from refined carbohydrates and refined sugars than meat. Our intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars much more greatly affects our cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. Saturated fat is actually GOOD for us and we NEED it to survive (and thrive!!).

Getting at least .4 grams of protein per pound of body weight seems ideal for most people, this number can be even higher (~1 gram per pound of body weight) for athletes.

Environmental concerns are certainly valid concerning CAFO meat. I think it is becoming increasingly important to vote with our dollars for humanely raised poultry, cows and pasture raised pork. Greenhouse gases and water usage are substantially less in humanely raised, grass-fed animals compared to conventionally raised animals.

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