Commentary: The essentialness of meat

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“I’m a cocktail-before-dinner guy, and hell will freeze over before I give up steak.”

So begins an intriguing article titled “Researcher contends meat may be essential.”

Writing in Canada’s Winnipeg Free Press, columnist W. Gifford Jones noted that, “I’ve found an ally in Prof. Duo Li, professor of nutrition at Zhejiang University in Hangahou, China.”

Prof. Li reported on his research quantifying the value of eating meat in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, which is a legitimate scientific publication—although one with a peculiarly practical bent—as these selected articles demonstrate:

Li’s research underscores the reality that vegetarian diets are generally lacking in iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and essential omega-3 fatty acids, all nutrients necessary for optimal cardiovascular health. On the flip side of that coin, heavy consumption of vegetables tends to increase production of blood platelets, which play a key role in normal blood clotting. Too many, however, increase the risk of forming dangerous blood clots that can cause fatalities if they become lodged in coronary arteries or severe strokes if they end up in the brain.

Vegetable consumption also produces an increase in the amount of homocysteine in the circulatory system, which has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Prof. Li’s studies also show that a strict vegetarian diet results in a decreased amount of high-density lipoprotein, the so-called “good” cholesterol, also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The Big C and CoQ10

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but although industry proponents, researchers and dieticians have worked tirelessly to spread the gospel of a balanced diet that includes animal foods to add the quality protein, heme iron and B vitamins often lacking in processed foods, a similar balance is nowhere to be found in media coverage of food and nutrition issues. For example, the recommended daily allowance for iron is 18 milligrams, yet the typical North American diet contains only about 6 mg, which is a big problem for teens, pregnant mothers and those who are nursing.

Other than cursory references to “Make sure you get enough iron” in online tips for women who are expecting, there’s rarely a peep about a widespread and potentially serious nutritional deficiency among Americans that’s exacerbated by the endless flogging of vegetarian diets as the solution to pretty much every chronic disease WebMD ever profiled.

In addition, meat contains vitamins significant amounts of zinc, an essential nutrient needed for proper growth and metabolic functioning—and also lacking most typical diets.

Eating a moderate amount of lean meat—beef, pork, poultry—certainly makes sense nutritionally. As Jones phrased it, “It makes more sense than a totally veggie diet. After all, humans have been enjoying meat since the caveman discovered it could keep him and his mate alive.”

But what about the “Big C,” as in cholesterol? Although science has discounted the 1980s-vintage hysteria about cholesterol—seeing as how the typical human produces two-thirds of the body’s required cholesterol endogenously—all too many people still consider anything containing cholesterol to be “bad.” That’s why, as Jones noted, is why millions of people have switched from red meat to chicken and fish.

Of course, a typical six-ounce steak only contains 146 mg of cholesterol. Which, unfortunately, is a meaningless number to anyone not possessing a Master’s degree in human nutrition.

So here’s perhaps a more interesting fact to roll out next time you’re arguing with your veggie frenemies: Meat—particularly beef—is one of the principal dietary sources of co-enzyme Q10 (Co-Q10). Heart, liver and kidneys are also great sources, as are sardines and mackerel, but Americans aren’t about to suddenly embrace organ meats or mackerel as dinner time staples anytime soon, so beef remains the likely source of CoQ10 for the majority of consumers.

That’s important, because CoQ10, which is similar to a vitamin, is manufactured by the body, is found in virtually every cell and serves as a catalyst in the production of metabolic energy. CoQ10 also functions as an antioxidant to protect the body’s vital organs—especially the heart—from cellular-level damage. The National Cancer Institute, in fact, has done extensive research on CoQ10 as a clinical supplement to the use of conventional anti-cancer drugs.

Beef is a good source of this vital nutrient, although cooking a steak well-done not only ruins the eating experience (for me, anyway), but tends to denature CoQ10 and thus increase one’s risk of cardiac disease occurring later in life.

The bottom line is pretty simple: Eat meat and prosper.

Nutritionally speaking, anyway.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Kansas  |  December, 04, 2012 at 12:02 PM

The reporter missed the overarching theme of Li’s paper, and included a title that is in stark contrast to the Professor’s conclusions. From the abstract: Omnivores have a significantly higher cluster of cardiovascular risk factors compared with vegetarians, including increased body mass index, waist to hip ratio, blood pressure, plasma total cholesterol (TC), triacylglycerol and LDL-C levels, serum lipoprotein(a) concentration, plasma factor VII activity, ratios of TC/HDL-C, LDL-C/HDL-C and TAG/HDL-C, and serum ferritin levels. The reporter showed another bias: cherry-picking papers that deconstruct diets, which is not a scientifically valid path for determining the best diets. Large-scale epidemiological studies, supported by basic research, clinical studies, and meta-research are the best tools available to researchers of diet and chronic disease, and they consistently show that plant-based diets are superior for overall heart health. Just last Saturday, my neighbor dropped during a footrace and might have died had he not received immediate assistance and transport to the hospital. He’s in great shape on the outside, but on Sunday he had his second double bypass. The doctor’s advice? Give up meat now, or the next time you drop you may not get up again. All plant-based, no oil, or forget about seeing your grandkids.

Everett, Wash.  |  December, 04, 2012 at 01:49 PM

First of all, Randy, I was only citing those papers as an observation that they're of a practical bent (coffee, wine, salad). But Li's findings are not to be discounted: "Strict" vegetarians -- which few actually are, by the way -- tend to have lower HDL cholesterol levels, a potential for certain vitamin deficiencies and may have an overabundance of platelet formation, a definite risk factor for heart disease. The cardiac profiles you mention, however, cannot be confidently assigned solely to diet, however. Many longitudinal studies (such as those involving Seventh Day Adventists) involve self-identified vegetarians who also don't smoke or consume alcohol or caffeine. There are so many lifestyle factors (stress, levels of exercise, etc.) and well as genetic variables, that to say ONLY vegetarian diets are preferred, or ONLY meat-eating diets are better, is automatically suspect. As for your neighbor, he's a classic case of exactly that: A runner who's probably in way better shape than the majority of men his age, but who likely has some predisposition to heart disease -- maybe exacerbated by diet, maybe not. But you can't simply say, give up meat and your problems are over. That's the knee-jerk reaction too many doctors exhibit, because they don't really have any training in nutrition.

USA  |  December, 04, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Marxist vegan diets from cradle to grave are dangerous precursors to malnutrition resulting in irrevesible catastrophic skeletal failure such that people on cult diets run a very real risk of spending their golden years in bed instead of standing upright as God intended. Going vegan or vegetarian part time for older people who already have strong bones and muscles makes sense under certain individual circumstances. Not everyone develops heart disease. And even some of those who do, can die of something else. But dietary advise is just like medical advise: It cannot be applied over a broad set of people who have such wide and varying physical and medical conditions. So, follow your own doctor's advise; not the latest fad diet.

USA  |  December, 04, 2012 at 12:28 PM

The secret to being healthy and vegan is to cheat on your diet. I heard a well-known "vegan", one who resurrected the long ago discredited notion of human-like feelings in animals, assert without any data whatsoever that oysters probably did not feel much pain when eaten. To me, his subtle reaction was hilarious when another person proposed that maybe the oysters did feel pain.

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