Without animals, our entire ecosystem and our health will fall apart.
On October 1, 2019 a “controversial” study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled “Effect of Lower versus Higher Read Meat Intake on Cardiometabolic and Cancer Outcomes: A Systemic Review of Randomized Trials”. The review evaluated the data of 12 randomized studies on red meat and health outcomes. Reviewers found there was little to no connection between red meat and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, despite years of recommendations to limit red meat for health reasons.
So, what gives? Why have we been told to avoid red meat if it’s not the cause of chronic illness?
The explanation can be found in the first paragraph of the study “Such recommendations are primarily based on observational studies that are at high risk for confounding.” Basically, observational studies, although they can point us in in the direction of a possible connection between two variables, should not be used to make black and white recommendations about anything.
Statistics 101: Correlation is not Causation.
Just because something is linked to something else, doesn’t necessarily meant it caused that result. My favorite example is this:
Let’s move on. In their evaluation of the randomized trials (considered the “gold standard”) that ranged in size from 32 to 48,835 participants, cohort studies, and basically every single research paper related to red meat consumption, there was little to no connection between red meat intake and cardiovascular morality, CVD, MI, stroke, or type 2 diabetes. Red meat also had very low to no effect on cancer mortality or the risk of developing multiple types of cancer. They also found that there was no evidence that red meat intake had any impact on quality of life or general health.
The results of this study have been poorly received by many of the health and nutrition authorities who have been on the “less red meat” soapbox for years. The findings have been called “inconsistent with the guidelines of clinical practice of ‘first do no harm’” by the Harvard School of Public Health. Organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have all sided with Harvard University. True Health Initiative along with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) are so threatened by the idea that red meat isn’t as bad as they thought, that they’re petitioning the Federal Trade Commission and cherry-picking specific studies that support their ideology, instead of considering the entire body of evidence, which doesn’t point to red meat as the dietary villain it’s been made out to be.
As an RD, this research is a welcome change from the constant vilification of meat that occurs in the media and among health professionals. I am happy to see the tides changing in terms of meat and health. I have always supported eating real food, like vegetables and meat for many reasons. In addition to the findings in this review, here are 11 reasons why I am a pro-meat RD:
Protein is the most important macronutrient. The body cannot make the 9 essential amino acids that must come from the diet. Other than pure nutritional need, protein serves many other positive functions for health.
Protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients. Intakes of 15% – 30% of total calories can be helpful in regulating appetite by increasing leptin sensitivity, inducing weight loss, and promoting blood sugar control.
Eating more, not less protein not only is essential, but also may be helpful to slowing the obesity and diabetes epidemic we are facing. Meat is a high quality source of protein. Eating meat makes it effortless to meet daily protein needs. You might think or have been led to believe we are eating too much meat, but I disagree. Americans only eat less than 2oz of beef per day. What is the optimal amount of protein? Check out this post I wrote explaining how much we need (it’s more than the RDA, and likely more than you think).
2. Nutrient Density
Meat is not just high in protein. It is also a source of many nutrients that are simply not available in plants. Meat provides B12, highly absorbable heme iron, preformed vitamin, all the essential amino acids, zinc, EPA, DHA, vitamin D, and vitamin K2, none of which are found in plant foods. Plants provide important antioxidants, vitamin C, and fiber. We need this variety of nutrients to survive. An omnivorous diet is simply the best diet for optimal nutrition, hands down.
Even though chicken and beef are both quality sources of protein, beef simply blows chicken away in the nutrient department. It has significantly more B12, zinc, choline, iron, and potassium. In terms of micronutrients, chicken only has more B3 than beef. Recommending people reduce beef intake and replace it with chicken or vegetables, is asking them to reduce the nutrient quality of their diets.
3. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods. B12 deficiency, which is common in vegetarians and vegans, has been shown as an independent risk factor for coronary artery disease and serious neurological disorders in infants of vegan mothers.
Fats, especially saturated fat, have long been the villain of the nutrition world. They have been blamed as the cause for all diseases and the reason we are obese.
Fats serve many purposes for our health. The brain is made up of mostly fat. Fat is needed for insulation to keep us warm and protect our organs. They also act as chemical messengers, control growth, help with immune function, and normal reproduction. They provide essential fatty acids and help with the absorption of fat soluble vitamin A, D, E, and K.
Saturated fat is by far the most vilified as the main cause of high cholesterol and heart disease. It does raise cholesterol, but usually raises HDL cholesterol. There has actually been no connection found between saturated fat intake and heart disease. The vilification of the type of fat that is primarily found in meat, is completely unfounded.
Meat contains heme iron, the most absorbable type of iron. Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common mineral deficiency in the United States. Iron is particularly important for pregnant women, infants, and children. Iron deficiency in children can lead to permanent intellectual delays.
6. Human Anatomy
Contrary to many internet memes floating around claiming that people only have the anatomy to eat plants, in truth, humans have distinct features that make us able to eat both plants and animals. Our small intestines are longer than the average primate and our colons are smaller. With our larger small intestine, we are adapted to eating more nutrient dense foods like meat and starches, not large volumes of plant foods like our primate relatives. We have canines for meat and flat molars for grinding plants. We also have very smart brains and nimble fingers to use tools very well to hunt and scrape meat off carcasses. We are omnivores, period.
7. Taste & Palatability
Humans love variety in their diets. They naturally crave different flavor combinations and tastes. Meat is highly satisfying when it is included in meals. This is why there’s such a large market for plant-based, fake meat products. Eating real meat actually helps us eat less overall because we are satisfied with the taste and flavor of our food, and our bodies know the nutrients we just consumed are exactly what we need.
Meat is an easy way to consume highly nutritious calories that are satiating and filling. It is simple to prepare and cook. It doesn’t require a large amount of seasoning or fancy cooking methods to taste great. Also, it’s quite inexpensive when you compare the nutrients in it to other foods. I recommend buying the best meat you can afford. This post explains how grass-fed beef is actually less expensive than you might think.
9. The Environment
A food system absent of animals simply does not work. Sustainable, regenerative agriculture involves animals playing a vital role. Synthetic fertilizers are destroying topsoil. Animals may provide a solution to that problem. Grazing enhances soil fertility, increases drought resistance, restores wildlife habitat, and sequesters carbon. Animals are a critical piece of creating a sustainable food system.
10. Ethics & Animal Welfare
Even if we don’t like it, humans are part of the natural ecosystem. Everyone is someone’s dinner. This is not “good” or “bad”. Every animal’s only goal is to survive long enough to reproduce and teach our kids to do the same. A plant-only diet is not a bloodless diet, it may destroy more life than a regenerative, pasture-centric model. Cows are frequently treated better than many other animals, like chickens.
11. Feeding the World
The goal for many is to create a sustainable food system, one which both feeds the population well and can last over centuries. The current popular narrative around our food is that animals must either be removed or dramatically reduced in order to “make it sustainable and feed the world.” But, I believe the most sustainable way forward is expanding the grass centric production of meat and maximizing the energy capture of the sun via photosynthesis, grass and grazing animals. Livestock are also critical to women and children in developing countries.
You’re probably thinking, “But what about the way meat is raised, shouldn’t we eat less meat and more plants?” My answer to this is that plants are also grown in a pretty horrible way in our industrial food system. We need more regenerative agriculture to heal our soil, and this includes animals. I have other posts that address sustainability in depth, and a book and film in the works on this, but the short answer is that we should be looking at what foods are ideal for human health and then figure out how to produce them in the most sustainable way. We aren’t telling people not to eat vegetables unless they’re organic, right? So I don’t feel that it’s ethical to tell people that can’t afford GrassFed beef that they shouldn’t eat meat unless it’s 100% GrassFed. This would be unethical of me as a dietitian. I encourage people to buy the highest quality food they can afford, but if they can’t access organic vegetables or GrassFed beef, that’s OK, these are still healthy foods to eat.
As a RD who also understand the complexities of sustainable food production, I’m in a unique position to turn things around for the health of humans and our planet. I am glad this study has been published to help balance the information about the “dangers” of meat that simply do not exist.
I’m not alone on Team Meat. Below lists many “Real Food” health professionals that also endorse meat.
Ken D. Berry, MD; Dr. Guillermo Rodriguez Navarrete, PhD, FACN, CNS, LDN, RD; Paulette Weber, RD, LD/N, CLT; Joseph Cecava, RD; Dr. Jason Bussanich, DC; Martha Tettenborn, RD; Karine Barlow, RD; Christy Kesslering, MD; Debra L Zelov, BSN; Diane Smith, MS, RN, AHN-BC; Patricia Shenofsky, RN; Sherry Campbell RN, Nutritionist; Emsley Willingham, MPH, RD, LDN; Sarah M. Henderson, MPH, RD; Crystal Flores, MS, RDN, CDN; Jenessa Humphrey, RD; Audrey Fleck, MS, RDN; Leighann DeWitt, MS, RDN; Ashley Daigle, RD; Ted S. Metzger, MD; Tina Jernatowski, MS, RD; Kate Netz, RD; Kristen Davis Lesh, RD; Danielle Aberman, RDN; Tracey Linneweber, RD; Megan Harper, MS, RD, LD; Ben Sielaff B Pharm – QLD, Australia; Tera Naset, RD; Amanda Austin, RD; Samantha Scruggs, RD; Sarah Palmiero, RD, LD; Alyssa Broadwater MS, RD, LD; Amanda Glibert, RD; Rachel Vanderpool, RD; Ana Reisdorf, RD; Melissa Groves, RD; Abby O’Malley, RD; Collette Sinnott, RD; Aglaée Jacob, RD; Jacqueline Slomin, RD; Heather Pavlik, RD; Dana Elia, RD; Kathleen Standafer Lopez, RD; Sam Schleiger, RD; Amy Murray, RD; Ester Blum Horn, RD; Theresa Link, RD; Kris Foley, RD; Shannon Bergtholdt, RD; Tara Holy, RD; Sarah Davis, RD; Dawn Boxell, RD; Chloe Schweinshaut, RD; Tera Naset, RD; Amy Kubal, RD; Kris Davis-Lesh, RD; Doug Cook, RD; Sam Presicci, RD; Tamie Brown, RD; Brittany Miller, RD; Jennifer Dickert, RD; Kayla Graves, RD; Meredith Fuson-Hill, RD; Jennifer Reese Zucconi, RD; Karen Wright, RD; Alexis Newman, RD; Adie Moody, RD; Annette Hunsberger Presley, RD; Emily Norbryhn, RD; Ryah Nabielski, RD; Halley Holloway, RD; Samantha Thoms, RD; Rachel Vanderpool, RD; Carla Hernandez, RD; Autumn Enloe, RD; Dena Norton, RD; Kristen Pardue, RD; Kate Callaghan, RD; Eliana Witchell, RD; Dr. Paul Grossl, Professor of Biochemistry; James Bardwell, DO; Kristin Johnson BCHN NTP; Michael Padula CSCS, ART, VOILA Level 5; Nick Huemmer, Health Coach; Chloe Davenport, NTP; Angela Blanchard, PHC; Isabel Lopez Primal Health Coach; Irma Jager, Certified Primal Health Coach; Garry Langler, Diabetes & Obesity Fitness Professional; Julie McCloskey, Registered Holistic Nutrition Coach; Mary Ruddick, CNC; Vitaliy Kroychik, MHA, CHES, NCTTP; Kathryn Day, ND; Jose Maresma, MS-Exercise Physiologist; Rick Simpson, Certified Primal Health Coach; Simon Preziosa, Primal Health Coach; Paula Barsanti, NDTR
For more information, check out my upcoming book and film, Sacred Cow, exploring the nutrition, environmental and ethical case for better meat.
Here are some of my favorite resources on how herbivores are great for soil and human health:
Carni Sostenibili (Italian association but much is translated to English)
Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman
Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin (or ANYTHING by him!)
An Ethical Meat Eater’s Response to the Film ‘Cowspiracy’ (blog post by Caroline Watson)
Cows Save the Planet by Judith Schwartz
The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry
How Wolves Change Rivers (Video)
How to Buy and Thaw Grass-fed Meat (blog post)
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
Year of the Cow by Jared Stone
The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes