I’m sure many of you have seen the recent headlines such as ‘WHO: Processed meat causes cancer; red meat probably can’. I will start with a couple of the most obvious problems with this report and finish with a valid criticism of red meat and how to combat it in your diet.
The authors of this report seem to have a ‘grouping’ problem. First, processed meat was defined as ‘meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermenting, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.’ It’s a major error to group meat preserved by natural methods with all processed meat. Traditional cultures had to preserve their meat somehow or they would have starved between kills. Don’t get me wrong – I agree that processed meat should be avoided, but when I say processed, I mean meat that’s had chemicals added to it. I even mean meat that’s been ‘processed’ since the day it was born – meat from animals raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Organizations (CAFO’s) where the they are crammed into spaces so small they can barely move, where they are fed pesticide ridden grains instead of their own traditional diets, where they are injected with antibiotics to control the inevitable infections that arise under these conditions. That kind of meat (not to mention the human behavior allowing CAFO’s to exist in the first place!) should be avoided. However, meat that’s ‘processed’ through salting or fermenting contributes to a healthy, nutrient-dense diet.
The next grouping problem is within the epidemiological studies cited in the report. These studies grouped all meat eaters together. Surely, those who eat a paleo-type diet, full of grass-fed meat with sides of greens and starchy vegetables would give different results from those who eat fast-food burgers served with french fries and a milk shake. And, since we’re talking about epidemiological studies, I’ll sneak in one more major problem with this report – it was based on epidemiological (aka observational) studies. While such studies can be important tools in identifying associations that may warrant further research, they simply cannot be used to determine causation. Even this report by WHO admits that ‘chance, bias, and confounding could not be ruled out…for the data on red meat consumption, since no clear association was seen in several of the high quality studies and residual confounding from other diet and lifestyle risk is difficult to exclude.’ Interestingly, they weren’t so prudent when interpreting the results for ‘processed’ meat.
You can read more detailed responses to the WHO report here and here, so I’ll stop there and move on to more important things – how should red meat be incorporated into your healthy diet? The answer is to eat the whole animal, not just the lean muscle meat. I’ll explain why, but let’s begin with why red meat is beneficial in the first place.
Red meat is high in nutrients. It contains a variety of B Vitamins, including B12 which, despite what you may have heard, you will not find in plant foods. It contains a highly absorbable form of iron (another nutrient lacking in plant foods), as well as minerals such as zinc, selenium and copper. Red meat also has a healthy fatty acid profile. It contains high amounts of saturated and monounsaturated fats (these are both good) and low amounts of polyunsaturated fats (these are good when they come from whole foods and as a small percentage of our total calories, but present a major problem the way we consume them in the Standard American Diet).
But here’s the potential problem with including meat in your diet – even in the paleo community, the advice to eat the whole animal is often overlooked. Lean muscle meat and eggs are high in methionine, an essential amino acid involved in metabolism, growth and antioxidant production. When methionine levels are too high, homocysteine levels in our blood will increase, as will our need for nutrients such as B6, B12, choline, betaine and folate. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with heart attack and stroke. So far, this doesn’t sound good for omnivorous humans! But, what about traditional cultures who consumed a majority of their calories from animal products, yet avoided chronic disease? The Masai of Kenya and the Inuit of the Arctic are examples of these cultures.
A major difference between those tribes and today’s omnivores is that, traditionally, animals were eaten in their entirety. Today, we throw out major parts of the animal in the form of skin, cartilage and organs. In doing so, we throw out all the things that balance the methionine intake and protect us from the high levels!
Glycine is another amino acid. It is not considered essential because our bodies are capable of making it, however, the efficiency of this production is questionable, particularly in those who are not in good health. Glycine is important for digestion and detoxification, and it’s needed to make glutathione (glutathione is a big deal so you’ll probably be hearing more about it if you continue to follow my posts, but for now, know that it is THE major antioxidant in our bodies). Glycine also aids the liver in the clearance of excess methionine so you don’t want to be consuming high amounts of methionine without balancing it out with glycine.
Here is a really interesting progression of research on the importance of glycine: Older studies have shown calorie restriction to reduce the risk for cancer and to prolong life. It was then discovered that general calorie restriction was not necessary, but that restricting protein alone would have the same effects. From there, researchers identified methionine as the culprit in protein and showed that methionine restriction alone would also have the same effects. The most recent evidence, however, shows the same results from supplementing with glycine! No calorie, protein or methionine restriction necessary! It’s simply a matter of balancing our intake of methionine and glycine, and this is done by eating ‘nose-to-tail’. (See Chris Kresser’s article here for more details, including links to the studies).
So, how do you incorporate glycine and organ meats into your diet?
You can add glycine into your diet by adding real bone broth (click here for an article on benefits of broth and recipes for making your own). You can also add grass fed gelatin powder to smoothies and other drinks, or create your own homemade gummy snacks with it. (If you clicked on the gelatin link – use the green one to dissolve in your smoothies or drinks and the red one for homemade gummies).
Because methionine also increases our need for certain nutrients (B6, B12, choline, betaine and folate), you will want to include these nutrients in your diet by consuming organ meats. Liver, in particular, contains not only glycine, but also B6, B12, folate, betaine and choline. If you’re lucky, you actually enjoy eating liver. But, if you’re like many of us (myself included!), you’ll need to find other ways to add it and other organ meats to your diet. Heart, for example, practically disappears when ground and mixed into dishes such as meat loaf. Liver can be added this way too, but I won’t make quite the same claim – its much harder to disguise than heart. Still, a small amount can go a long way in terms of adding nutrients. You can buy a whole liver, cut it up into ice cube-sized pieces and freeze it. When making a (very flavorful) recipe with ground beef, grab a cube, chop it up and throw it in. Or, you can also buy liver in pill form here.
Please leave comments if anyone has other ways to incorporate gelatin or organ meats into a nutrient-dense diet!