When it comes to following a cleaner, healthier diet, meat tends to be a rather polarizing food, with proponents and critics on both sides of the health spectrum. Even so, annual meat consumption in the U.S. (including red meat, poultry and fish) has increased steadily, rising from 205 pounds per consumer in 1980 to 230 pounds per consumer in 2016 (roughly 10 ounces per person, per day). By contrast, fruit and vegetable intakes have declined over the past 10 years, with nearly 80% of Americans (across all age groups) not meeting the recommended daily intake for vegetables.
Given the fact that this time period has seen a concurrent rise in both obesity and heart disease rates, some have questioned whether or not meat consumption to blame. However, the true culprit is overconsumption of calorically dense foods. While this might describe some meats, other types can be considered quite healthy.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a plant-based diet, but this does not rule out meat consumption. Instead, many people opt for a semi-vegetarian approach—a flexitarian diet, as some have termed it—that may provide the most health benefits. This term conceptualizes a way of eating that places more emphasis on vegetable-based meals and less emphasis on meats. In other words, the most current recommendation is to eat a lot of vegetables with some meat (as opposed to the other way around). For the record, vegan and vegetarian eating patterns can supply all necessary nutrients as well.
If you choose to include meat in your diet, it’s important to know what health benefits you might be getting and how to choose the healthiest meats.
Here are some well-known benefits of meat consumption:
Protein. Meat provides complete, high-quality protein (roughly 7 grams perounce). While most Americans consume enough protein; however several myths about high-protein consumption exist. For example, some believe that the body can only absorb about 40 grams of protein at once. While it is true that the effectiveness of a single dose of protein levels off around 30-40 grams, this does not mean the body cannot utilize more than 40 grams or that it will automatically convert to fat. Nor will a high-protein diet wreck your kidneys or leach calcium from the bones. Unless you have a preexisting condition (such as high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease) and your fluid intake is adequate, a high-protein diet will not overstress the kidneys. And it’s actually an overconsumption of phosphorus (such as phosphoric acid in colas), not protein, that has the greatest negative impact on bone health.
Iron. Unlike protein, iron is deemed an under-consumed nutrient and iron deficiency is considered a public health concern for adolescent, premenopausal and pregnant women. Meat, especially red meat, contains ample amounts of heme iron, which has a very high biological value, meaning it is well absorbed. Iron from non-animal sources (non-heme) has a lower biological value.
Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B12 is only available from animal sources and plays an important role in digestion (stomach acid) and energy production. People who do not eat meat, dairy or eggs must supplement their diets with B12.
Lipid Profile and Cardiovascular Health. The research now suggests that low-carbohydrate diets are equally effective as low-fat diets at reducing weight and improving cardiovascular risk factors. Low-carbohydrate meal plans typically replace starches, grains and fruits with meats and healthy fats. Thus, when replaced with the correct proteins and fats, a high-meat diet can be heart healthy.
While meat does contain cholesterol (as all animal products do), the newest Dietary Guidelines has removed the cap on cholesterol consumption. Research suggests that dietary cholesterol has very little effect on blood cholesterol.
It is also worth noting that a recent extensive review of the scientific literature concluded that the body treats saturated fats from processed meats and unprocessed meats differently. That is, a small steak from the local butcher and a few slices of deli meat (laden with nitrates and other preservatives) may each contain 5 grams of saturated fat, but the latter will have a greater, negative impact on our health.
Which Meats are the Best?
Non-Processed Meats. As a rule of thumb, it is best to buy foods with the fewest ingredients as these tend to be less processed and closer to their original form. Most meats do not have an ingredient list at all, because the food itself is the only ingredient (the same applies to fresh and frozen vegetables). Make these types of food the nucleus of your meal planning and preparation.
Grass-fed Beef. You are what you eat, but you are also what your food eats. Put another way, when we consume healthier animals, we become healthier ourselves. Arguably, one of the most important factors to overall health is the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in your diet. Grass-fed cattle have greater amounts of omega-3 fats than grain-fed cattle, as well as lower bacterial infections and parasites (meaning they require fewer antibiotics). The type of feed also matters more than the quality of feed; that is, organic-fed animals can still be fed food (corn, soy) they were never intended to eat.
Eggs. People often classify eggs as dairy, but eggs are the “fruit” of chickens, whereas dairy comes from cows (and a few other animals). Eggs are completely void of dairy products such as whey, casein and lactose, and offer the highest biological value of protein. Eggs are also high in vitamin A, various B vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients and, as discussed, are safe to eat again, despite their high amounts of cholesterol.
Small Fish. Many types of fish offer high levels of omega-3 fats. But small fish (bottom feeders), offer an additional benefit—sustainability. The environmental impact of our food sources is often overlooked and predators are the least sustainable because they eat fish that eat other fish—by the time your anchovy becomes a tuna, you have eaten 100 pounds of seafood.
While it is O.K. to eat tuna, mahi mahi, farmed salmon, shark, red snapper and swordfish occasionally, try to consume more mussels, oysters, clams, sardines, scallops Pacific halibut, rainbow trout, lobster and crayfish. These smaller fish also have lower mercury levels compared to predator fish.
Overall, a plant-based diet with meat appears to offer the most health benefits. Think of the ideal plate with a 2:1:1 ratio of vegetables, meats and fruit/starches. For most Americans, this means cutting total meat consumption in half, but it is even more important to consume quality meats such as grass-fed beef, eggs and small fish. Additionally, look for the words local and free-range when purchasing meat and poultry. Eating a little less meat overall, while also emphasizing, unprocessed, higher quality meats, will have no net change in your budget, but will make meals more enjoyable and have lasting health benefits.