If optimal health is what you seek, you may need to eat meat
If data is your thing, you will find evidence on both sides of the aisle suggesting that eating or not eating meat and animal products is the healthier choice. You can refer to the China Study and convince yourself rather quickly that a plant based diet is the answer to all your health needs, yet if you listen to the sober analysis of Chris Mastrejohn and Denise Minger or countering arguments of Chris Kesser, you might soon be headed in the other direction.
The decision to eat or not to eat meat is a very personal one. But if the main driving factor behind the choice is good health rather than an ethical or religious position, for many people including red meat in their diet is vital to staying both healthy and lean.
I’m not suggesting this is the case for every body type, but aside from my own experiences I’ve encountered many people who after years of being vegetarian, vegan or even raw vegan, had to embrace eating meat to regain their health and to shed extra weight. Without fail, these people who had a hard time with their weight watched pounds melt off, while more importantly recovering strength, improving bone, tooth and mental health, among other health issues.
When my meat consumption goes down, my weight goes up
I’ve witnessed for myself time and again that when I veer into a vegetarian diet I begin to put on weight. And not because I’m a bad vegetarian that loads up on simple carbs. When this happens I’m still consuming lots of veggies and very modest amounts of carb-heavy foods, it’s just the meat that’s no longer a significant part of the diet. And wham. It happens every time – weight slowly creeps on.
Why would I do this to myself? In the distant past it was because I mistakenly thought reducing meat consumption would lead to weight loss. More recently it’s been purely accidental.
From an ethical and health standpoint I buy my meat directly from farms that I trust, and since moving to L.A. last year access to high quality meat has not been easy. Because there are no artisanal butchers selling pasture-raised meats in my part of the city, I’m mostly reliant on vendors at the Farmers’ Market. This means that I only have access to unprepared frozen meats, and having to plan ahead and prepare all my own meats has made it difficult to eat as frequently as my body requires.
As my meat consumption has gone down over the last year, my weight has gone up about eight pounds. Nothing else has changed. I haven’t been eating more than before and I’ve been working out just as much. But besides the evidence of these consistent lifestyle factors, I’ve witnessed this pattern for myself several times before. When I reintroduce meat I naturally slim down, when I cut it out, I start to plump up. Aside from gaining weight, the effects also play out in my overall health, especially in my mood and energy levels.
What is it about meat that keeps me lean and healthy?
People’s genetic make-up dictates how their bodies metabolize foods and what predispositions they may have to different types of nutritional vulnerabilities. This can easily be understood if you consider that some people have food allergies, while others don’t.
What’s less commonly understood is that our genetic variability plays a role in our body’s ability to extract nutrients from different food sources. For example, some people’s bodies are equipped to covert plant-based beta-carotene into vitamin A, while other people’s bodies can only access bioavailable vitamin A in retinol form, which is only found in meat sources.(1) Although this is just one example, clearly people who are not genetically designed to produce the necessary enzymes to metabolize β-carotene to the essential form of vitamin A, would not do well on a plant based diet.
For those of us who’ve experienced poor health and weight gain when we’re not getting enough meat, it’s not surprising that we see quick improvement once we reintroduce meat into our diets. Red meat, and organ meats in particular, are packed with a complex mix of bioavailable essential vitamins, minerals and cofactors that allow for efficient absorption, and support countless physiological functions.
Red, pasture raised meats supply the body with these, and many more nutrients:
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
- This polyunsaturated fatty acid, a common type of Omega-6, has shown to lower body fat and increase lean mass in some people.(2, 3)
- Acts as a potent antioxidant that may protect against heart disease, diabetes and cancer. (4)
- Cellular antioxidant glutathione/ Alpha lipoic acid
- Especially high in organ meats, high amounts of alpha lipoic acid support the body in regenerating glutathione, which amongst other functions, allows for significantly improved recycling of antioxidant vitamins C and E, selenium and carotenoids.
- Alpha lipoic acid binds with excess heavy metals. Reducing the risk of accumulation of mercury, copper, iron, lead and cadmium. (5)
- Omega-3 and Omega-6
- Omega-3’s anti-inflammatory properties help protect against cardio-vascular diseases, support proper neurological function, cell membrane maintenance, mood regulation and hormone production.
- These essential fatty acids are available in the most healthful ratio when the meat is coming from grass fed animals.
- Vitamin A (retinol) and Vitamin E
- Important antioxidants in their essential, bioavailable from.
- Support healthy eyes, skin and bones.
- Help to prevent oxidation of EFA’s and to protect the meat from oxidative damage during processing and cooking. (4)
- B Vitamins
- Especially high in B12, a hard to source vitamin essential to most bodily processes.
- High in all B vitamins, including vitamin B6, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folate, niacin, and thiamin. (6)
- Vitamin D
- Accompanied by 25-hydroxycholecalciferol, a metabolite that improves assimilation, making it a uniquely absorbable by the human body. (6)
- Heme Iron
- More easily absorbed than non-heme iron found in plant based foods, and catalyst for increased absorption of iron from plant sources. (6)
- Necessary to support over 300 bodily functions, zinc is present in red meat in a highly bioavailable form, allowing even small amounts of meat to make a significant difference. According to Chris Kesser, zinc is a necessary building block for everything from, supporting the structure in certain proteins and enzymes to the regulation of gene expression.(6)
If CLA’s ability to improve lean muscle mass stands out to you, don’t jump to any conclusions about just taking it in supplement form! The effects of synthetic conjugated linoleic acid are inconsistent, and studies show that chemically altered safflower and sunflower oils in CLA supplements only produce a modest loss in body fat in humans with the potential for toxicity.(11) The positive health effects that people experience from eating meat occur because of the beautiful synergy between all the above vitamins, antioxidants, fats and minerals contained in the meat.
When I consume red meat with at least 4 meals per week (in approximately 6 oz servings), and especially when I’ve been vigilant about including organ meats in my diet, this is when my body is at its leanest and my health at its most vibrant. Modest portions of meat paired with veggies are easy on my digestion, and I can both feel and see the positive effects. As I’ve started to consciously eat more meat in the last couple months, without changing anything else I’m beginning to see my weight drop again and my energy lift.
Pasture-raised means more nutrition
For nearly a decade now I’ve been eating pasture raised meats, mostly sourced directly from the farmer. I mention this because it means that I can say for certain that the majority of meat I consume is authentically coming from animals raised on pasture.
This means that the meat I’m consuming is not only fresh and coming from humanely treated, healthy animals, but also that these meats are far more nutritious than meat produced from grain fed, sick animals raised in feedlot conditions.
Studies show that pasture raised meats are measurably superior (4, 7, 8, 9, 10):
- Contain 2-3 times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
- Contain much more vitamin A and vitamin E
- Contain much more glutathione/ Alpha lipoic acid
- Better ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6: “Grass fed beef consistently produces a higher concentration of Omega-3 (without effecting Omega-6 content), resulting in a more favorable n-6:n-3 ratio.”(8)
- Higher mineral content: including significantly increased levels of zinc, iron, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium
As you can see, there are many health benefits to buying high quality grass fed meats, not to mention the importance of the ethical treatment of the animals.
If this resonates with you, I strongly encourage you to consider including more healthy meats in your diet. That means lamb, goat, beef and maybe even pork! Ideally including organ meats and Homemade Bone Broth.
- If you need pointers on where to get high quality pasture raised meats locally, read my Online Resources for Pastured Meats, Eggs & Dairy.
- If you eat meat but still suffer from anemia or other mysterious nutritional deficiencies, you may have gluten intolerance or Celiac. See Misdiagnosis Maze: Symptoms & Causes of Gluten Intolerance to determine if it’s something you should investigate.
- Check out these lamb recipes.
- Try this 20 minute start-to-finish Ginger Zing Quick Beef Sauté Salad.
- Learn more about The Benefits of Eating Offal from Dr. Mercola.
- Discover your own health traits by running the 23andMe Health + Ancestry Test.
- Provitamin A metabolism and functions in mammalian biology1,2,3,4. Johannes von Lintig. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Nov; 96(5): 1234S–1244S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.034629
- Conjugated linoleic acid supplementation for 1 y reduces body fat mass in healthy overweight humans1,2,3. Jean-Michel Gaullier, Johan Halse, Kjetil Høye, Knut Kristiansen, Hans Fagertun, Hogne Vik, and Ola Gudmundsen. Am J Clin Nutr June 2004, vol. 79 no. 6 1118-1125.
- Efficacy of conjugated linoleic acid for reducing fat mass: a meta-analysis in humans. Whigham LD1, Watras AC, Schoeller DA. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;85(5):1203-11.
- Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed. Chris Kesser, March 29, 2013.
- Dietary Factors, Lipoic Acid. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center.
- “Red Meat: It Does a Body Good!” Chris Kesser, March 1, 2013.
- Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health. Ponnampalam EN1, Mann NJ, Sinclair AJ. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2006;15(1):21-9.
- Effect of pasture vs. concentrate feeding with or without antioxidants on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and quality of Uruguayan beef. C.E. Realinia, S.K. Ducketta, G.W. Britob, M. Dalla Rizzab, D. De Mattosb. Science Direct, Volume 66, Issue 3, March 2004, Pages 567–577.
- A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Cynthia A DaleyEmail author, Amber Abbott, Patrick S Doyle, Glenn A Nader, Stephanie Larson. Nutrition Journal 20109:10 DOI: 10.1186/1475-2891-9-10© Daley et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2010.
- Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef1. J. M. Leheska, L. D. Thompson, J. C. Howe, E. Hentges, J. Boyce, J. C. Brooks, B. Shriver, L. Hoover and M. F. Miller. Journal of Animal Science 2008 86: 12: 3575-3585, doi:10.2527/jas.2007-0565.
- Analysis of conjugated linoleic acid and trans 18:1 isomers in synthetic and animal products1,2,3,4. John KG Kramer, Cristina Cruz-Hernandez, Zeyuan Deng, Jianqiang Zhou, Gerhard Jahreis, and Michael ER Dugan. Am J Clin Nutr June 2004
vol. 79 no. 6 1137S-1145S.