This week’s column features the seventh of the top ten nutrition questions I get asked. Tune in over the following weeks for the remainder. If you missed it, the first week I covered soy products and the controversy around whether they are good or bad for your health. Then, I covered whether or not we need nutritional supplements and organic foods. We also explored the health benefits of dairy products and why some people turn to dairy alternatives. Then, we explored eggs and why they are a great addition to a healthy diet - even if you have high cholesterol!
As discussed last week, a plant-based diet has gained momentum as a health trend because it’s believed to be more ethical, more sustainable, and better for our health. We discussed each of these and learned why plant-based doesn’t necessarily equate with healthy. This week, we’re going to look at the health impacts of eating meat.
When deciding which foods to include and which to eliminate from our diets, I think the most important rubric to use is nutrient density. That is, how many nutrients does the food product contain? When we look at food in this manner, instead of looking at how “clean” or how “green” a food is, we can discern how beneficial the food is for human health.
Let’s look at meat products through this lens.
Red meat has been much maligned by mainstream dietetics, however, it’s nutritionally very rich. Beef contains several essential nutrients. It’s a complete protein, which means it has all the essential amino acids. Remember, amino acids are the building blocks of the structures and tissues in our bodies, and they are essential for neurotransmitter, enzyme, and cell function. This translates to the brain and nervous system health, digestive health, cellular health, and muscle and tissue health.
Additionally, beef contains heme iron, which is the form of iron most easily absorbed and utilized by the body. It’s only available through eating animal flesh. It’s also a good source of many minerals, including zinc, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium and calcium and many vitamins, including B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12.
Aside from D3, the most common deficiencies I see clinically are the B’s and minerals. B12 and zinc deficiencies are particularly prevalent (10-35 per cent of Canadians are known to have inadequate intake), and many women (16-19 per cent) have insufficient iron intake. (source) Adding a bit of beef to a meal helps increase iron not only via the iron in the beef but by increasing the absorption of other iron in the meal. We also know that over 1/3 of all Canadians are deficient in magnesium. Beef provides for all these needs.
In fact, compared to any other food, beef liver is one of, if not the most nutritionally dense food on the planet. One serving has more than 100 per cent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A in the fat-soluble and most easily absorbed form. Vitamin A is responsible for good vision, good skin, and a healthy immune system, among other things. Beef liver is also full of vitamin K, which is essential for bone health. Vitamin K helps keep calcium in the bones and out of our arteries. Many people would benefit from more of this little-known vitamin.
Beef liver is also full of iron and vitamin B12, both important for anemia. The old standard medical treatment for pernicious anemia was to consume beef liver. When the heart health hypothesis took hold (high saturated fat intake = heart disease), liver consumption was no longer recommended. But now we know that hypothesis was incorrect. Prominent functional medical practitioners have begun to recommend beef liver again, even referring to it as nature’s most potent superfood.
The fat in beef is composed of both saturated and unsaturated fats, depending on how it’s raised. Grass-fed beef has a higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids, as opposed to 6’s. This is preferable for reducing inflammatory conditions in the body. Adding fish oils to the diet can help balance this if you don’t purchase grass-fed.
Contrary to popular belief, Canadians do not eat too much red meat. Recent dietary evidence showed that 48 per cent of Canadian women ages 31-50, 69 per cent of women aged 70 years and older, and 56 per cent of adolescent males do not eat the recommended amount (grams or servings) of meat and protein alternatives.” (source)
Like beef, pork contains all the essential amino acids. Also, like beef, the fat content depends on the cut, and the fatty acid ratios depend on how the pork is fed. It’s rich in selenium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus and also high in vitamins B1, B3, B6, and B12. If pork isn’t restricted due to religious reasons, it’s a nutrient-dense food to consume.
Poultry, like chicken, contains all nine essential amino acids. They additionally contain a range of B vitamins, as well as zinc, iron, and magnesium, as well as some fat-soluble vitamin E. The amounts vary by the bird, with turkey having higher amounts of tryptophan, for example. They are an excellent source of nutrients.
Mutton (meat from lamb/ sheep) also contains all the essential amino acids. Compared to many other types of meat, it’s high in fat, both saturated and unsaturated. It’s a good source of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, and B12, and contains vitamin D, vitamin E, and a good amount of vitamin K. It’s also a good source of many minerals: potassium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, copper, and iron.
Goat meat is similar in that it contains all the essential amino acids. It’s high in vitamins B1, B2, B3, and B12, with some vitamin E. It also contains phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and more than 100 per cent of the recommended daily amount of zinc, copper, and iron. It’s more lean than mutton, with a higher protein ratio.
Fish and Seafood:
Fish is another source of all essential amino acids. Depending on the fish, it can be lean (tuna) or fatty (salmon) and can contain a lot of omega-3 essential fatty acids and vitamin D. Cold water fish have more vitamin D than warm water fish; salmon is the highest, followed by halibut, sardine, tilapia, and flounder. Salmon are the highest in omega-3s, followed by a sardine, Atlantic mackerel, cod, and herring. Fish are an excellent source of minerals, as well.
Seafood is known to be high in protein, healthy fats and nutrients. Three oz of oysters has 100 per cent of the recommended daily value of zinc.
There are many other types of meat on the market now, from ostrich to emu to bison to quail. There are abundant options not only because of expanding global markets but because of food intolerances and a resurgent interest in farming. If you haven’t already tried less-known meats, I encourage you to try something new. If you’re feeling adventurous, try organ meats, as they’re much more nutritionally dense than muscle tissue of the same animal and help to ensure the entire animal is used.
In summary, meat is a highly nutrient-dense food. It’s a superior source of protein and fat, with the fatty acid profile varying depending on how it’s farmed and cut. Meat is abundant in minerals, often the B vitamins, and often contains some fat-soluble vitamins, which comprise the most common deficiencies today. Organ meat is especially nutrient-dense, over and above other cuts.