Meat – the original superfood

I came across this story this morning. It concerns the fact that there are plans afoot in the US to label meat products with nutritional information including calorie counts, levels of fat and specifically (and inevitably), saturated fat content. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “More and more, busy American families want nutrition information that they can quickly and easily understand,” and “We need to do all we can to provide nutrition labels that will help consumers make informed decisions.”

Meat is not generally regarding as a ‘health food’, and its stash of saturated fat and cholesterol generally mark it out as something that should be consumed with care. And then we have the issue of calories: meat can be quite fatty and therefore calorific (and we can’t have that).

In response to news about the forthcoming labelling laws the American Meat Institute (a trade group) swung into action. Mark Dopp, the organisation’s vice president of regulatory affairs, pointed out that a 3.5-ounce serving of skinless, boneless chicken breast is 165 calories and 3.57 grams of fat and the same-size serving of beef round roast has 166 calories and 4.87 grams of fat. This sort of statement attempts to put a positive spin on the supposed nutritional hazards to be found in meat.

But is there really any need to issue such apologist statements regarding the nutritional attributes of meat? To begin with, there is no convincing evidence at all that saturated fat is harmful to health (really, there isn’t). So singling this out for labelling is a bit pointless, in my view. Also, there’s no mention that other types of fat found in meat are going to get special mention when the labelling laws come into force because about half the fat in meats such as beef and lamb is monounsaturated in nature which evidence points to having benefits for the cardiovascular system.

But what about cholesterol? Yes, what about it? For a start, the amount of cholesterol in the diet has precious little impact on cholesterol levels in the blood stream. And so what if they did: taking dietary steps to reduce cholesterol does not appear to have significant benefits for health which suggests, strongly, that if cholesterol goes up a bit that’s not going to endanger health.

What about calories? Again, what about them? We now have a mountain of evidence (scientific and anecdotal) that demonstrates that eating fewer calories is, for the most part, utterly ineffective for the purposes of weight control in the long term. One fundamental thing about meat is that, calorie for calorie, it generally has enormous ability to satisfy the appetite. This is one reason why when individuals ‘go Atkins’ or something similar, they so often drop weight like a stone.

The LA Times piece makes mention of the fact that both men and women are supposedly eating more calories than they used too. What is not mentioned is the increase in calorie intakes over the last 30 years or so has been almost exclusively down to increased consumption of carbohydrate.

Other than fat, meat is rich in protein too. Meat quite ably supplies the full complement of so-called ‘essential’ amino acids the body requires to keep itself in good nick. Yes, of course you could try doing the same thing with beans and grains and stuff, but the problem is you’d have to eat much greater quantities of food to achieve the same end. Also, if you are eating a relatively protein-rich diet in the process of losing weight, there’s a reduced risk that any weight lost will be muscle (rather than fat). And even if you’re not in the business of losing weight, that protein will help maintain your muscle mass which is no bad thing.

Meat, particularly red meat, is rich in iron. This nutrient is an essential component of the constituent of red blood cells called haemoglobin that carries oxygen around the body.  Iron deficiency can cause of low haemoglobin levels (anaemia), which can lead to a serious sapping of our sense of mental and physical well-being.  What is less well recognised about iron is the fact that, irrespective of its role in the making of haemoglobin, it participates in reactions which generate energy in the body.  Low levels of iron can, therefore, cause symptoms such as fatigue and low mood, even if they do not cause anaemia.  Vegetarians and vegans are at enhanced risk of iron deficiency, as are women of child-bearing age (due to menstrual blood loss).

Another mineral found in good quantity in meat is zinc.  This nutrient plays an important role in, amongst other things, immune function, wound healing, brain function and fertility.  As far as vitamins are concerned, meat offers a rich complement of B-vitamins, including B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 and B12.  These nutrients have a wide range of functions in the body, and assist both in the generation of energy and in balanced brain function.

Another of meat’s nutritional offerings comes in the form of carnitine – a substance comprised of the amino acids lysine and methionine.  One of carnitine’s chief roles is to help the conversion of fat into energy in the body’s cells.

There’s no doubt about it, meat is a nutritional heavyweight. It is perhaps worth noting that meat has been a constituent in our diet for as long as we’ve been on this planet. Some populations even thrive on a meat-based diet which, I think, is a testament to its relative nutritional completeness.

It’s not just what’s in meat that makes it a good choice nutritionally, it’s also what not in it. For example, it contains none of the sugar or starch that abounds in the diet that appears to have a big hand in the biochemical and physiological imbalance that can lead us down a path to weight gain, raised blood pressure, raised triglyceride levels, low ‘healthy’ HDL levels, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia.

I don’t think we need to eat meat to be healthy, but I genuinely believe it can help.

Sometimes in conversation should the subject of meat come up I’ll mention some of its attributes as well as its relative nutritional completeness. Then I might compare it to, say, blueberries which are rich in carbohydrate (the absolute requirement of which is zero in the diet), plus some vitamins and antioxidants. I may then pose this question:

“Knowing all this, say you had to choose one of these foods (meat or blueberries) to eat exclusively, with the idea of sustaining yourself for as long and as healthily as possible. Which would you choose?”

Almost invariably the response given is ‘meat’. And yet, blueberries have a reputation as a ‘superfood’, and meat is a food which we’re generally advised to avoid. This doesn’t make much sense to me. The reality, I believe, is that meat is the original superfood.

One of the good things I think about eating a diet that is largely made up of natural, unprocessed foods (e.g. meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and nuts) is that we can concern ourselves far less with label-reading. Do you pick up an apple or head of broccoli and wonder about its nutritional make-up and whether its appropriate to eat? Almost certainly not. And, for the most part, I encourage non-vegetarians and vegans to have a similar attitude to meat.

19 Responses to Meat – the original superfood

  1. Jake 31 December 2010 at 6:19 pm #


  2. Chmee 31 December 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    So whatever happened to evidence based medicine ? Deep sigh……..

  3. John Duggan 31 December 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    What we now need now is for Dr Briffa to review the evidence and find that moderate alcohol intake, is, indeed, beneficial for health and then we can all look forward to a pleasurable and healthy diet in 2011, based on lots of good red meat and other tasty things that are also good for us

  4. france 31 December 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    I love your practical advise Dr. Briffa and always look forward to and read your newsletter. Thank you Dr Briffa and Happy New Year!

  5. peter 31 December 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    Yup, eat unprocessed food with lots of vegetables, nuts whole grains, little meat and minimise the sugary stuff. Good quality pasta is no problem unless it is the only thing you eat and eat tons of it. Pasta and beans or vegetables are killer good.

  6. drm 31 December 2010 at 9:33 pm #

    Modern farmed meat is a shadow of the wild meat that our ancestors ate. In US cattle, which are ruminants for goodness sake, are fed on unnatural feeds (GM grains and soy etc) with growth promoters and antibiotics to protect against illness from their poor diet – avoid. But natural foods such as wild game (high in nutrients and with a favourable lipid profile) can be considered as health foods along with sea fish. It is not the type of food which determines whether a food is a healthy but how it is produced.

    Natural, wild, organic. raw or lightly cooked – YES

    Intensively farmed, refined, processed, over cooked, contaminated – NO.

  7. Lori 31 December 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    Liver is a superfood among meats–it’s loaded with vitamins A and B and iron. It’s inexpensive, too.

    I always find it curious when people say “avoid sugar” and “eat complex carbohydrates” in the same breath. Don’t they know those complex carbohydrates (aka starch) break down into sugar when you eat them?

  8. Diana 31 December 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    I agree with what you say about meat being full of good nutrition, and believe in the value of protein being satisfying so that we are less likely to fill up on carbs. I just wonder about the question of all the anti-biotics routinely given to animals which are then in the meat. If we are regularly taking in low levels of antibiotics in our food (milk included) that must deplete our gut flora and affect our immune systems. Eating organic meat is the obvious answer, but easier said than done as well as being expensive.

    I’d be interested to know what other people think about this. Is it a valid concern?

  9. Ian 31 December 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    A response to Peter: I’m not sure if it was deliberately provocative, or just a wind-up… but the advice to “eat unprocessed food” and that “good quality pasta is no problem”… ?????

    Can’t say I’ve ever come across naturally growing pasta… am I being obtuse, or isn’t pasta derived from processed grains? Or, to put it another way, processed food? And how would you define good quality pasta?

    Sorry, maybe I’ve had too much to drink this Christmas, and my brain is frazzled, but Peter’s post just seemed to demonstrate that he just doesn’t “get” this blog.

  10. drm 1 January 2011 at 12:42 am #

    Don’t you remember the spaghetti trees which were discovered by the BBC in Switzerland on April 1st 1957 ???

  11. Marly Harris 1 January 2011 at 12:46 am #

    I’ve lost 114 pounds on a fiber-free diet. I have 48 more to lose. As a (former) vegetarian for 60 years, learning to eat meat happily was a bit of a stretch, but I’ve finally found cuts that I like. My life, my body, my philosophy have changed enormously.

    I so enjoy Dr. Briffa’s newsletter. I’ve sent the link to many of my friends who have now become Briffa groupies.

    Thank you, Dr. Briffa, for your even-handed and informative news blasts. Happy New Year to you.

  12. Marilyn 1 January 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    OK, another pro-meat rant. I guess we all look for evidence o healthy eating for things we like, and distrust evidence to the contrary. Where does your blog leave life long vegetarians? Ill? What about those of us who don’t want animals killed for us to eat (when there is plenty of other food for us)? How about a better use of the planet’s resources.I haven’t eaten meat or fish for 40 years and doubt whether I could digest it now. I originally gave it up because the thought of eating flesh made me physically sick. A pretty good sign from my body,wasn’t it?

  13. BruceP 2 January 2011 at 1:21 am #

    Meat yes, but it completely has to be grass fed and finished naturally. Even the Bible speaks of this.

    The harmfull fats and sich animals we have today are major contributing factors to health problems.
    A lot of EU and the orient has more sense than to eat out meat.

  14. Marilyn 3 January 2011 at 3:17 am #

    Doesn’t matter how happy a life they’ve had, some of us don’t want animals killed for us to eat

  15. Jill H 4 January 2011 at 1:46 am #

    Marilyn – I totally respect that you are a vegetarian and the reasons for your being so. However, as somebody that does eat meat, I believe that it is vitally important ‘how happy a life they’ve had’ as regards the way domesticated animals are kept. Healthy foods can come only from healthy plants and animals. I cannot believe that you would wish animals to be treated with contempt and as no more than food machines in food factories. Quality and ethics (whether the ethics be different from your own) are inextricably linked in the production of good food – ‘good husbandry’ means a farmer maintains the health and wellbeing of livestock. Questions like “have they lived well? Have they been fed on safe, appropriate foods? Have they been cared for by someone who respects them and enjoys their contact with them?” I make no apologies if this all sounds very unscientific – our intuition (and now science also seems to be telling us) that our health whether we be vegetarians or meat eaters is intimately bound up with our diet. Better food – more local, more healthy, more sensible, more sustainable – less industrial farming methods promoting soil erosion and loss of soil fertility is something surely both vegetarians and meat eaters can agree on and would be a better use of the planet’s resources.

  16. Jill H 4 January 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    Thank you Dr Briffa for highlighting the plans to label US meat products for calories – levels of saturated fats. I also saw this and my heart sank. It just seems like going down the road that led us to vegetable oil and margarines containing, what we now realise are highly detrimental for health hydrogenated, damaged fats which have been banned where I live. It is my understanding that fat from animals that have been pastured and fed naturally, which have been allowed to grow slowly and predominantly out of doors is a complex of fats including saturated, monounsaturated and essential fatty acids including the now elusive in our diet, thought to be beneficial, omega 3’s. CAFO’s (confined animal feeding operations) are well suited for the production of ‘lean meat’ (????artificially lean) While the supposed dangers of a high-fat diet are discussed ‘ad nauseam’ the possible effects of eating biochemically adulterated lean meat remain, it would appear, practically uninvestigated. Certain feeds and feed additives such as antibiotics, steroids and hormones may routinely be used both to speed up the development of muscle (lean meat) and to inhibit the development of fat. Industrialised and inhumane meat production, highly processed sausages and burgers, highly processed, damaged omega 6 vegetable fats in snacks and sweets and deep-fried foods and ‘convenience’ foods are perhaps the fats causing harm – not healthy animals fed on safe appropriate foods and that have lived well.

  17. drm 5 January 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    Jill H
    I have to agree with you totally 100%. Animals in the wild do not do these ridiculous manipulations on the food that they eat and we cannot be adapted to the modern day junk that passes as food. I think one needs to stick as closely as practicable to nature i.e. as close as practicable to what our ancient ancestors ate Hence, in case of animal flesh foods (about 10% of total diet) I prefer to eat wild game and sea fish whenever possible. Of course naturally fed modern meat as you describe is a good alternative, venison, lamb and beef being preferred in that order, based on probabilty of having beem reared and fed properly. If one eats such natural foods, the profile and proportion of lipids are automatically correct as is the nutritional profile in general – and the proportion of lipids will not be as ridiculously high as in meat from modern intensive farming.

  18. ET 7 January 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    I was in an organic food store not longer ago, picking up my coconut flakes, when I reviewed what the lady in front of me had on the conveyor belt. She had at least three different soy products, and all her choices were either low- or non-fat. When I looked up and saw her I was shocked. She had the appearance of a concentration camp victim.

    So much for eating halthy.


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