Meat matters for health. This statement is not to say that vegetarians and vegans are inherently unhealthy. It is not to say they cannot live well and be healthy – or even be healthier than most Americans (which may be setting the bar fairly low, unfortunately). In fact, it is not even a statement about anyone who chooses to not eat meat. There are many compelling reasons people choose to avoid meat that have nothing to do with nutrition, and this does not offer an argument against any of those points. Saying meat matters for health simply notes that animal flesh has potent health benefits that are more difficult to obtain from other food sources without incurring other, less beneficial physiological impacts. (This is particularly true when one’s diet is solely plant-based.) But we’ll get to that shortly….
First, a few caveats are in order. After all, this is a complicated – even hot button – issue. The fact is, a healthy diet (whether it includes meat or not) should be largely plant-based (non-grain). A well designed, non-meat-eating diet and a well designed meat-eating diet actually share many more commonalities than differences. It’s nice that it works that way, I think….
Also, the fact remains – whether you eat meat or not – that any well designed diet needs to prioritize eliminating processed food items, added sugars and other food additives. Likewise, sources of meat matter. The nutritional claim here is absolutely based on this condition. In the points below, “meat” refers to animal proteins obtained from animals who consumed their biologically natural diet (e.g. grass fed beef). “Meat” for my purposes here also excludes artificially processed or chemically preserved animal proteins. All that said, let’s get to the “meat” of the issue, shall we? (I couldn’t resist….)
Meat is nutrient dense.
There are a few ways to evaluate nutritional density, but meat performs quite well whether it’s nutrients per calorie or nutrients per 100 gram serving. Compare a 3.5 oz portion of grass-fed ground beef to the same weight of cooked peas or 3.5 oz of sprouted wheat (select the 100 gram serving size portion – roughly equal to 3.5 oz).
Most notably in these analytics, meat offers slight anti-inflammatory properties and no glycemic load, meaning it doesn’t have a negative effect on blood sugar balance. The wheat and pea examples might provide protein (albeit less than the meat), but you get a higher glycemic load and (particularly in the case of the wheat) a more inflammatory impact.
The meat example also has a positive balance of omega-3 fatty acids compared to omega-6 fats, making it an ideal food source to support mood, brain function and cell membrane health. Additionally, the minerals contained in the meat are of higher biologic value – more bio-available – than the minerals found in the grain example, which means they are more easily absorbed than when eaten along with the phytic acid and lectins found in grains or legumes.
Long-time “vegan advocates turned omnivores” Denise Minger, Lierre Keith and Kristen Suzanne have recently spoken about their experiences living on the highest-quality, non-animal foods for years but still ending up with diminished health due to certain nutrient deficits.
Protein is an “obligate” nutrient, and meat is a superbly efficient source of protein.
Obligate simply means biologically necessary, and efficiency matters to obtain enough. In order to consume adequate protein (since we can also assimilate protein from non-animal sources), most active or aging adults should aim for at least 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day or higher for optimal health and performance (1.4-2.0 g/kg according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition).[i]
Just for fun, take your body weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2. This is how many kilograms of mass you have. Now, multiply that number by 2, and you’ll have a target for how many grams of protein you may have to consume daily to perform at your best. If a 160-pound person tried to achieve this intake target (145g) with only non-meat sources of protein (like beans, for example) it would take just over 9 cups of beans per day (and also contribute almost 2000 calories). While it’s possible to get adequate protein from non-animal sources, it’s not probable for many if not most people. Without adequate protein, one cannot build structures, blood cells or hormones properly.
Meat may be your only non-supplement source of certain nutrients.
Vitamins A (retinol), B12, D, cholesterol, creatine, carnosine, along with the most useful forms of omega-3s – DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosopentaenoic acid) – can only be obtained in appreciable amounts from animal sources – most beneficially from organ meats. The lack of such nutrients over time can have devastating effects on brain function and development, bone formation, and overall health.
For example, vitamin A from animal sources (e.g. liver and eggs) is critical for proper development and maintenance of vision, skin health, teeth mineralization and bone growth. Vitamin B12, a critical nutrient for blood cell and DNA formation as well as energy and muscle strength, has been shown to be deficient in a large percentage of non-meat eaters who aren’t supplementing daily with this nutrient.[ii]
Too many of us don’t get enough sun throughout the year to supply us with adequate vitamin D. In terms of food sources, vitamin D is found mostly in certain animal foods or processed foods fortified with it. Without adequate vitamin D, normal functions for immunity, cell growth, calcium absorption, mood and hormone balance can drift off course.
On a related note, cholesterol happens to only appear in animal foods and also happens to be the precursor that gives us the ability to synthesize our own vitamin D. While we actually produce most of the cholesterol in our bodies (as opposed to relying on food to obtain it), eating cholesterol from animal foods (particularly fatty cuts of meats) may have advantages. Such benefits may come in the way of healthier sex hormone production, better maintenance of DHEA-sulfate levels (known as an anti-aging hormone in many circles) and generally healthier cell membrane structures.
Creatine, like cholesterol, can also be made by humans but is available through (raw or lightly cooked) animal meats and fatty fish and cannot be found in any appreciable quantities in plant foods.[iii] This amino acid (protein building block) is good for more than just boosting athletic performance or reducing recovery times between bouts of high-intensity exercise. Adequate creatine stores may also support heart-failure patients’ recovery efforts and may have considerable value for those with neuromuscular disorders like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s.
Finally, carnosine is a potent antioxidant[iv] that is vital to protecting us against age-related wear and tear, but it, too, can only be obtained in beneficial doses from animal foods. EPA and DHA are animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids and have been shown to be superior sources[v] for these essential nutrients compared to plant sources containing alpha-linoleic-acid (ALA).
Your aging bones have much to gain from meat.
The old and once-common recommendation that suggested limiting meat intake to avoid de-mineralization of bone is no longer deemed necessary. In fact, going meatless may actually decrease bone integrity as we age. The best available evidence[vi] supports maintaining protein intake from high quality sources throughout the lifespan. It appears important to even increase protein intake the older we get!
Meat’s fat content actually supports health.
Many benefits of consuming animal sources may actually come from the accompanying fat (yes, even the saturated kind!). Saturated fats, common in meat sources, are important components of hormone precursors and synthesis. They’re actually great sources of energy for both brain and organ function and may be utilized by working muscle tissues as well.
Meat promotes muscle growth and maintenance.
Modest consumption of meat (113g of meat containing ~30g of protein) every few hours is one of the best ways to stimulate muscle tissue synthesis.[vii] The high biologic value of the amino acids in animal foods makes them a sound choice to support muscle growth, maintenance and repair.
Animal proteins are tasty and satisfying – and support positive mood and brain health.
The satiety and thermic effect of high-protein foods have been shown to support weight loss. This suggests meat-inclusive dietary protocols may offer a suitable way to achieve lasting weight loss success. The “A to Z Weight Loss Study”[viii] stunned even its lead researcher (a life-long vegetarian) due to the unexpected results he reviewed here.
Perhaps the highly-satisfying nature of enjoying “ad lib” amounts of protein (including fat-rich animal foods) and high-fiber, low-carbohydrate vegetables (without the need to count calories) paved the way for adherence and success in the lowest carb, highest protein group.
This study definitely needs to be performed again to verify contributing reasons behind the results. Nonetheless, it’s suggestive for those who want to lose weight, stay satisfied and gain health.
While meat certainly is not the only source of protein and other essential nutrients, it is what I’d call an optimal source for many of these. Remember that meat’s full nutrient profile is impacted by the source animal’s diet. Choosing pastured poulty or grass-fed beef (available at Life Cafe) offers the ideal (and natural) nutritional profile.
I also recognize that some individuals choose to not consume animal flesh for protein but include other animal sources such as eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt or protein powders like whey or casein. This is a suitable way to ensure high-biologic value protein adequacy.
If you choose to not consume any animal protein, I’d suggest prioritizing the following non-animal quality sources: rice and pea protein isolates like VeganMax, hemp protein, or (if it agrees with your body) the occasional use of whole, organic (non-genetically modified) soy like tofu, edamame, miso, or tempeh.
Ultimately, it’s important to find a balance of nourishment that makes you feel your best and function at your best.
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[i] Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, Antonio J: International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2007, 4:8.
[ii] Pawlak R, Parrott SJ, Cullum-Dugan D, Lucus D. How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutr Rev. 2013 Feb;71(2):110-7.
[iii] Buford TW, Kreider RB, Stout JR, Greenwood M, Campbell B, Spano M, Ziegenfuss T, Lopez H, Landis J, Antonio J: International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2007, 4:6.
[iv] Reddy VP, Garrett MR, Perry G, Smith MA. Carnosine: a versatile antioxidant and antiglycating agent. Sci Aging Knowledge Environ. 2005 May 4;2005(18):pe12.
[v] Gerster, H. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3) Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998;68(3):159-73.
[vi] Kerstetter JE, Kenny AM, Insogna KL. Dietary protein and skeletal health: a review of recent human research. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2011 Feb;22(1):16-20.
[vii] Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Sep;109(9):1582-6.
[viii] Gardner CD, Kiazand A, Alhassan S, et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women: The A TO Z Weight Loss Study: A Randomized Trial. JAMA. 2007;297(9):969-977.