Whether to eat meat

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2011

Meat has been under the nutritional microscope for a couple of decades, linked to heart disease and cancer, but we need to tease apart the several components of the issue.

Some nutritional anthropologists argue that when human hunters became skilled enough to bring down large animals their higher intake of protein from meat made them taller and stronger. The seemingly obvious conclusion is that meat is good for us and that it is well-suited to our diet. What gets lost in most analyses is that Stone Age steak bore little resemblance to the T-bone at your local market. To put that into even sharper perspective, today's steak donor is considerably different from his ancestors of a mere 150 years ago.

The cattle herds that cowboys drove to the railheads of the Midwest in the late 1800s ate nothing but grass and never received antibiotics or hormones. During that hot, dusty journey they lost much of the fat that they had acquired in the preceding 3 or 4 years. Like modern wild game or grass-fed cows, the fat that they accumulated was mostly the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind. The marbling of modern grain-fed prime beef consists almost entirely of saturated fat. One can argue about its health hazards but no one can dispute that eating lots of it contributes to the obesity problem that affects most modern societies.

A moderate amount of lean red meat, which in the U.S. usually means beef, provides healthy protein and vitamin B12 as well as other nutrients. A standard serving is about 3 ½ ounces, not the 12 or 16 ounces found on the typical restaurant menu. Those larger portions, especially when they are part of the daily diet, have long been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer. Our disdain of fruits and vegetables only magnifies the problem, for those foods protect against both diseases.

When meat on the hoof becomes sausage, hot dogs, cold cuts or bacon with the addition of salt, nitrates and other chemicals, it becomes even less healthy, increasing the risk of colon cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A sugar-like chemical that is found naturally in red meat makes us more susceptible to invasion by toxic forms of E. coli.

You don't need to become a vegetarian but it makes sense to buy leaner cuts of beef, eat reasonable amounts of it and cut back on processed meats.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.