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.